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Belarus mass protests amid crackdown

Belarus has been witnessing mass protests for nearly four weeks now, where IT workers took to the streets of capital Minsk on Friday, September 4 to join the ongoing demonstrations against the disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. Protests broke out across the country after Lukashenko returned to power earlier in August, in what is widely being considered a rigged election. The demonstrations grew more heated after several opposition leaders, including the main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, were forced to leave the country and many others imprisoned.
According to reports, an increasing number of tech workers are now fleeing the country as the IT haven is falling into the hands of the authoritarian ruler. The protesters on Sunday prepared a new mass demonstration against strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has refused to quit after disputed re-election and turned to Russia for help.

Opposition rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said that she has won the vote but Lukashenko’s security forces have detained thousands of protesters, many of whom accused police of beatings and torture. On Friday, a human chain was also formed outside the High Technology Park, after the government authorities raided a company and detained several workers. Several people have died in the crackdown but Belarusians have been demonstrating across the country for nearly a month, with more than 100,000 people flooding the streets of the capital Minsk. Dozens of people including student protesters and journalists covering rallies were detained this week.

In recent weeks, nearly 50 journalists from around the world were rounded up by law enforcement authorities dressed in riot gear and taken into custody. Several of these were made to hand in their documents, cellphones and hard drives to government officials.

Just minutes before the meeting in Lithuania between the American official and Ms Tikhanovskaya, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told journalists in Moscow that President Vladimir V. Putin considered all foreign interference in Belarus “inadmissible” and wanted it to stop. “These are the forces currently trying to put direct and indirect pressure on the events in Belarus. Such an element exists, and regretfully, this cannot be ignored,” Mr Peskov said.

Speaking on Monday at a news conference in Minsk, members of the coordinating council, a loose body created by opposition members to streamline their actions, vowed that they would never do anything to damage long-close relations between Belarus and Russia

On Saturday, around 4,000 people took to the streets and more than 90 people were detained, the interior ministry said. Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice, urged supporters to turn up for Sunday’s ‘March of Unity’ set to begin at 1100 GMT. “Remember we are strong as long as we are united,” she said in a short video address. Tikhanovskaya contested the election after her blogger husband was jailed and barred from running along with several other prominent Lukashenko critics. She left Belarus under pressure from authorities and took shelter in EU member Lithuania. On Friday, Tikhanovskaya addressed a meeting of the UN Security Council by video link, calling for sanctions against those responsible for the alleged electoral fraud and rights violations.

The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have blacklisted Lukashenko and 29 high-ranking officials in his administration but other members of the EU bloc appear reluctant to target the Belarus strongman personally. Russia has said it will respond to any Western attempts to sway the situation and President Vladimir Putin has raised the possibility of sending military support. Putin has been keen to unify Russia and Belarus, and Moscow has accompanied its recent offers of economic and military aid with calls for tighter integration.

Lukashenko made headlines when he claimed during a meeting with Mishustin that his security forces had intercepted German calls showing that Putin foe Alexei Navalny’s poisoning with a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent had been faked. “No one knows what intercept Alexander Grigoryevich (Lukashenko) will record and publish tomorrow and where he will run with an assault rifle,” wrote Kirill Martynov, politics editor at independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

By Karishma Gwalani

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