Long columns of protesters, wrapped in the traditional red-white Belarusian flag that has become the symbol of the protests, marched through the city center shouting “Resign!” “And” strike! ”
As usual, authorities shut down mobile internet in central Minsk, shut down metro stations, and placed riot police lines at key sites. Military and riot vehicles were positioned throughout the center, and hooded, shield-wielding officers stood at nearly every intersection, but they only attacked the crowds in the evening.
The current wave of discontent was sparked by Lukashenko who declared a landslide victory in the August presidential elections which were widely seen as rigged, and then ruthlessly cracked down on those who came to protest.
At the first large August rallies in response to the crackdown, euphoria and disbelief combined to create intoxicating excitement that Lukashenko’s days were surely numbered. The authoritarian leader, who has ruled for 26 years, has since made it clear that he has no intention of relinquishing power without a fight.
A number of opposition leaders have been forced to leave the country or arrested over the past two months, and authorities have threatened to use live ammunition on protesters. Sunday’s crowd was still largely vibrant , with several groups of drummers providing a musical thud. accompaniment and many people flashing signs of victory.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who opposed Lukashenko after her husband’s imprisonment, was able to act as a lightning rod for voters at the protest, but was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania the day after the vote, receiving only 10 % of the official count. Tikhanovskaya declared herself the legitimately elected leader of Vilnius and said she wanted to oversee a period of transition before holding new free elections.
“Today at 23:59, the duration of the people’s ultimatum will expire, and if the demands are not met, the Belarusians will start a national strike,” she said in a statement on Sunday. Few in Minsk, however, expect the strike to succeed. The August and September strikes drew some support from workers in the large factories, but were quickly crushed.
“I support the strike, but of course I will continue to work,” said Sergei, a 29-year-old salesman draped in a red and white flag during Sunday’s protest. “We have to get rid of Lukashenko, but I also have to keep my income.”
Whether the strike is successful or not, it is clear that Lukashenko has lost its legitimacy among huge sections of the population, and it seems unlikely to regain it. A counter-rally in central Minsk in his support was scheduled for Sunday but canceled at the weekend, apparently to avoid the risk of clashes with opposition protesters. Most people believed that the real reason was the fear that few people would be embarrassing.
However, Lukashenko retains the loyalty of his security forces and if the strike does not work, the question will be whether the protest movement, which has so far remained almost entirely peaceful, will become radicalized or whether it will die in the process. following fatigue and the onset of winter. Renewed violence from authorities on Sunday night could serve to galvanize the exhausted protest movement again.
The outgoing president has promised, alongside threats, to launch a process of constitutional reform. He even visited the KGB prison in Minsk this month for alleged negotiations with political prisoners in an attempt to win over some of the opposition. Many have dismissed the initiative as too little and too late, but how events will unfold remains uncertain.
“It is impossible to predict what will happen in a few months. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy, we don’t know where Russia will be, and we don’t know how far Lukashenko will go with concessions, ”said Minsk-based political analyst Artyom Shraibman .
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lukashenko on Saturday, one of the only conversations the Belarusian leader has had with a Western politician since his controversial re-election. According to a description of the call published by Lukashenko’s team, the two men discussed “internal political situations in Belarus and the United States”.
The EU has imposed sanctions on many members of the Belarusian regime since the protests began, and Lukashenko has turned to Vladimir Putin for his support. The Russian president is known to dislike Lukashenko, but seems to have decided that it is better to support him than to allow a change of power coming from the streets. The head of the Russian spy agency, Sergei Naryshkin, flew to Minsk last week on one of several high-profile visits to Russia.