Military units and riot police took to the streets of Belarus on Sunday, in an attempt to quell opposition attempts to claim victory in a hotly contested election closely watched by Russia and the West.
The crackdown, if successful, would keep strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, in power for at least six years. A state-run exit poll, released minutes after the vote ended, said Lukashenko had won a resounding victory with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
But the opposition, which rallied around the unlikely figure of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political neophyte, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday evening that they had seen the official count of votes at 20 polling stations – and with Ms Tikhanovskaya in front of all – they were ready to declare that their candidate had in fact won the election.
“Today we have a victory,” said Anna Krasulina, spokesperson for Ms. Tikhanovskaya. ” We say [to the regime] which they need to prepare to transfer power to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Ms Krasulina said the opposition hoped the country’s Central Electoral Commission would decide to be “heroes” and publish the true results on Monday. Ms. Krasulina said that in the 20 polling stations where the opposition saw the results, Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s share of votes was “two, three, four times” that of Mr. Lukashenko.
Ms Krasulina said that if the regime continued to insist that Mr Lukashenko won the election, Ms Tikhanovskaya would join her supporters in the streets to “defend their rights”. On Sunday evening, she said, Ms Tikhanovskaya planned to stay at her campaign headquarters to monitor the official results.
A calm transfer of power seemed unlikely on Sunday. The country’s security services began arresting opposition figures even before the vote began.
The crackdown followed a campaign that was meant to be just a formality, but instead turned into the biggest threat that Mr Lukashenko – a former collective farm boss and recognized admirer of Josef Stalin – has faced. during his 26 years in power.
Ms Tikhanovskaya worked as a teacher and translator before entering politics in June after the arrest of her husband, a well-known blogger who was jailed trying to register as a presidential candidate. But Ms Tikhanovskaya’s base is calling for a change that has energized politics in the country, with her rallies drawing some of the largest crowds in the country’s history.
In Belarus, a newcomer fights a presidential election against her as the “last dictator of Europe” faces a toll
The struggle for Belarus is fraught with geopolitical implications. A former Soviet republic that still hosts Russian military bases on its soil, the country is strategically located between Russia to the east and NATO members, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the west and north.
The situation drew comparisons with events in neighboring Ukraine six years ago, when a pro-Russian strongman was ousted by pro-Western mobs. This revolution sparked a fierce military backlash from Moscow, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and provided military support to separatists in southeastern Ukraine.
Elections in Belarus have not been free and fair since Mr Lukashenko came to power. With observers and foreign media banned from observing Sunday’s vote and the internet in the country interrupted for much of the day, a state-run exit poll said minutes after the vote ended that Mr. Lukashenko won with an improbable 79.7%, against only 6.8% for Ms Tikhanovskaya.
It was a claim that prompted immediate contempt. An exit poll of Belarusians who voted in foreign embassies revealed that Ms Tikhanovskaya won 71% of the vote, compared to 15% for Mr Lukashenko.
” The [official] The results of the exit polls show that Lukashenko has not made and will not make any concessions to the opposition. He just shows his total power with these crazy numbers, ”said Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist. “It’s a signal to the opposition that he’s going to destroy them.”
Mr Viacorka said there was no doubt that Ms Tikhanovskaya had received more votes than Mr Lukashenko. “But that’s not enough. The major competition takes place in the streets, and without Internet or correspondents [to witness] – and Lukashenko has the soldiers, the army and the KGB by his side.
Despite the partial internet shutdown, opposition supporters managed to post videos on social media showing Ms Tikhanovskaya supporters attempting to take to the streets in Minsk and several other cities, before being quickly arrested. by riot police. In one video, crowds of people flee one of Minsk’s main squares amid the noise of explosions which, according to the independent news site Tut, were caused by stun grenades.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people were arrested in the run-up to the election, a number that did not include Sunday’s arrests.
In other videos, the protesters appeared to outnumber the police on Sunday evening. There were claims on Twitter and Telegram that opposition supporters had invaded main squares in several small towns outside the capital.
By voting in central Minsk earlier today, Lukashenko made it clear that he would use force to crush any uprising. “If you go against our country, or even to the smallest extent, try to plunge the country into chaos and destabilize it, you will receive an immediate response from me,” he said.
Many Belarusians say they just want change after 26 years of authoritarianism by Mr. Lukashenko, a period that has seen the country fall far behind its neighbors economically. Fatigue with Mr Lukashenko turned into anger this year after dismissing the COVID-19 pandemic as a “psychosis” and refusing to declare a lockout. Doctors say they have been pressed to attribute hospital deaths to pneumonia or other causes in order to keep official coronavirus statistics – 68,500 cases and 580 deaths – low.
As the pre-election crackdown unfolded, Ms Tikhanovskaya left her apartment and went into hiding on Saturday evening. Earlier today, police stormed the opposition headquarters, arresting its campaign manager and several other staff. But Ms Tikhanovskaya went out on Sunday to vote in Minsk, escorted to the polling station by a crowd of several hundred supporters who chanted her name and shouted “Thank you!” as she voted.
In brief remarks, Ms Tikhanovskaya said she hoped the authorities would not resort to violence. She said her only request was that Belarusian votes be counted fairly. “I really want the elections to be fair, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if everyone is for [Mr. Lukashenko], then we will agree with [the results.] »
Journalists and independent election observers were also among those arrested on Sunday, leaving few witnesses able to challenge the regime’s claim to victory. Photos and videos posted on social media showed long lines to vote as polling stations closed at 8 p.m. local time. Many voters wore white ribbons indicating their support for the opposition.
During the election campaign, Lukashenko repeatedly warned that foreign powers were plotting a coup against him. At one point, 33 Russian mercenaries were arrested at a spa hotel outside Minsk. The Kremlin admitted the men were private security providers, but said they were only in Belarus because they missed their flight to an unidentified third country.