Vast Protest in Minsk Keeps Pressure on Belarus President

August 23, 2020 Updated: August 23, 2020

MINSK, Belarus—More than 100,000 protesters demanding the resignation of Belarus’s authoritarian president converged Aug. 23 in a vast square in the capital, keeping up the massive outburst of dissent that has shaken the country since a disputed presidential election two weeks ago.

The demonstration overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. While there were no official figures on crowd size, it appeared to be 150,000 people or more.

Thousands of people protest Independence square Minsk Belarus
Thousands of people gather for a protest at the Independence Square in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo)

Dozens of police prisoner transport vehicles were parked on the fringes, but police made no immediate efforts to break up the gathering.

Earlier this month, some 7,000 people were arrested, many of them beaten with clubs or wounded by rubber bullets, in protests that followed the Aug. 9 election that officials say handed President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office.

Policemen try to block protesters in Minsk
Policemen try to block protesters from their gathering in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo)

Protesters say the official election results, in which Lukashenko reportedly received 80 percent of the vote, are fraudulent.

The size and duration of the protests are unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.

A girl plays with a balloon during a protest in Minsk
A young girl plays with a balloon during a protest in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo)

The 65-year-old leader appears to be flailing about for a strategy to counter them. He has repeatedly blamed Western interference, claimed the protests were backed by the United States, and accuses NATO of building up troop concentrations in Poland and Lithuania on Belarus’s western border, which the alliance denies.

He also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to offer security assistance to his government to quell the protests if asked.

A boy catches a balloon during a protest in Minsk
A young boy catches a balloon during a protest in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo)

Lukashenko has consistently repressed any opposition during his time in office; weariness with his hardline rule, as well as dismay over the country’s deteriorating economy and Lukashenko’s cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic, appear to have galvanized opponents.

A similarly enormous crowd turned out for a protest a week ago and daily demonstrations have taken place since the vote. Several of the country’s key factories have been hit with protest strikes by workers fed up with government policies. Those strikes not only threaten the ailing economy, but show that opposition to Lukashenko extends beyond educated white-collar circles and into his traditional blue-collar base.

Demonstrators carry a huge historical flag of Belarus
Demonstrators carry a huge historical flag of Belarus as thousands gather for a protest at the Independence Square in Minsk on Aug. 23, 2020. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP Photo)

“Belarus has changed. Lukashenko has been able to unify everybody, from workers to intelligentsia, in the demand for change,” said protester Slava Chirkov, who attended the Aug. 23 demonstration with his wife and son.

They held a sign declaring “Lukashenko, your milk has gone sour,” referencing Lukashenko’s former job as the director of a Soviet-era collective farm.

Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election. Several other possible challengers fled the country even before the election.

An opposition Coordination Council was created last week to develop a strategy for a transition of power, but authorities in Belarus have opened a criminal probe into its formation.

By Yuras Karmanau