MINSK, Belarus—Police in Belarus on Monday detained several leading opposition activists who have helped spearhead a wave of protests challenging the reelection of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in balloting that his critics say was rigged.
The Coordination Council, which was established by the opposition to negotiate a transfer of power, said its members Sergei Dylevsky and Olga Kovalkova were detained in the capital of Minsk. Later in the day, the opposition also reported the detention of Alexander Lavrinovich, the leader of striking workers at a major industrial plant.
The police actions signal Lukashenko’s determination to stifle massive post-election demonstrations that have entered their third week. The 65-year-old Belarusian leader, who has been in power since 1994, toted an assault rifle in a show of force as he arrived at his residence by helicopter on Sunday while protesters rallied nearby.
Last week, Lukashenko warned that the opposition council’s members could face criminal accusations for creating what he described as a parallel government. Prosecutors then opened a criminal inquiry on charges of undermining national security, an allegation rejected by the council.
Several other council members, including Belarus’ most famous writer, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, have been summoned for questioning over the protests in an apparent attempt by authorities to intimidate them.
Dylevsky played a leading role in organizing a strike at the Minsk Tractor Plant, one of the multiple labor actions at top factories last week in support of the protests that posed a major challenge to Lukashenko. Lavrinovich led the strike organizing committee at another major factory, the Minsk Wheeled Tow Truck Plant.
Kovalkova is a top associate of the main opposition challenger in the disputed Aug. 9 election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the race after her husband was jailed and prevented from running. She fled to Lithuania after the vote under official pressure.
Tsikhanouskaya met Monday with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. In a statement issued by her campaign headquarters, she reaffirmed her readiness for talks on a transition of power to settle the crisis in Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya also thanked the United States for supporting the Belarusian people.
“She is a very impressive person and I can see why she is so popular in her country,” Biegun said after meeting her. “The United States cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus, this is the right of Belarusian people.”
The U.S. and the European Union have dismissed the election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to start a dialogue with the opposition.
Sunday’s anti-Lukashenko demonstration in Minsk drew an estimated 200,000 people pushing for him to step down. A protest a week earlier attracted a similar number in the largest rallies ever held in the former Soviet nation of 9.5 million people.
The demonstrations are challenging the official results of the election, which gave Lukashenko a sixth term with an unlikely 80 percent of the vote.
The president, who cultivates an air of machismo, has dismissed the opposition as puppets of the West and accused the U.S. of fomenting the unrest.
Video on Sunday showed him getting off his helicopter with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. He was accompanied by his 15-year-old younger son, who also carried a rifle.
The Belarusian leader commented to his aides that the protesters “ran away like rats” and then thanked riot police who encircled the presidential residence.
“We will deal with them,” he said of the demonstrators.
Shortly before he spoke, the demonstrators approached the edges of the grounds, but were stopped by lines of police officers in full riot gear and soon dispersed amid the rain.
“The authorities are afraid of the majority and clearly nervous,” said Maria Kolesnikova, a leading member of the opposition council, in describing Lukashenko’s actions in the face of the protests.
She described the detentions of her colleagues as “crude pressure and an attempt to scare us.”
“They ignore our proposals for a dialogue and respond with repressions,” she told The Associated Press.
The protests were galvanized by a brutal crackdown in the initial days after the election, when police detained nearly 7,000 people. Hundreds were injured when officers dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three people died.
Lukashenko on Monday dismissed Belarus’ ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, who denounced the crackdown and handed in his resignation.
As crowds swelled amid public outrage, the authorities backed off and let demonstrations go unhindered. However, they again bolstered police cordons around the city since last week and threatened opposition activists with criminal charges.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert criticized the threats against the striking factory workers and deplored “the very martial, threatening backdrop which Mr. Lukashenko created on the weekend.” He praised the protesters’ courage and emphasized that “a dialogue between the leadership and the Belarus society is urgently needed.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said while visiting Ukraine on Monday that Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, urged Russia to use what influence it has with Lukashenko “to make clear to him that he can no longer get past this dialogue.”
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said that Biegun, the No. 2 U.S. diplomat who is set to visit Moscow on Tuesday and Wednesday, will be “urging the Russian government to join us in respecting the democratic rights and aspirations of the Belarusian people, not intervening in that process.”
“The message is letting the Belarusian people decide their fate without outside interference,” he said at a briefing.
Russia and Belarus have a union treaty envisaging close political, economic and military ties, and Lukashenko said he secured a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide security assistance, if needed.
The Belarusian leader has sought to rally Moscow’s support by trying to cast his foes as anti-Russia, although the protesters in Belarus have not displayed anti-Russia slogans.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Moscow has shunned contacts with the Belarusian opposition, arguing that such a move would amount to meddling in a neighbor’s internal affairs.
“We consider it wrong and have no intention to do so, at least not during the current ‘hot’ stage,” Peskov said.
Seeking Putin’s support amid the protests, Lukashenko also has accused NATO of harboring aggressive plans and bolstering its forces in neighboring Poland and Lithuania, and he ordered a massive military exercise near those borders. The alliance has rejected Lukashenko’s claims.
Lukashenko’s office said he and Putin had another call Monday to discuss the domestic situation in Belarus and the developments on its western frontier. The Kremlin said in its readout of the call that Lukashenko told Putin about his efforts to “normalize the situation in the country.”
By Yuras Karmanau