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In Belarus, ‘extraordinary’ wave of protests could threaten Lukashenko’s reign

In Belarus, pressure is mounting for President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in power. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest last week’s election, which was widely denounced as fraudulent. And the ensuing brutal crackdown seems to have galvanized opposition to Lukashenko, even among his former supporters. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    Pressure mounted today and over the weekend for President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus to step down after 26 years in power.

    Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest last week's presidential election, which has been widely denounced as fraudulent.

    With the support of the Pulitzer Center, special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports from the capital, Minsk. And a warning: Images and accounts in this story may disturb some viewers.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    After widespread allegations of vote-rigging, the result of last week's presidential election was met with disbelief in Belarus.

    Protesters were met with police truncheons, rubber bullets and stun grenades. As many as two people died. Countless others were beaten to within an inch of their lives.

    But the violence galvanized an even larger proportion of the public to come out and demonstrate against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko. And these were the scenes at a heavy vehicle factory in Minsk today.

    These striking workers are part of the reason Lukashenko must be terrified right now. It's one thing for people to come out into the streets, but factory workers have always been his base. And it seems that is starting to change.

    Behind these factory walls, the embattled president addressed workers of the MZKT vehicle plant, telling them, the elections are done.

  • Alexander Lukashenko (through translator):

    Until you kill me, there won't be any new vote.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The workers responded with chants of "Go away" to his face in pictures widely shared on social media.

    His helicopter departed just as protesters gathered outside the main entrance way.

  • Valeriy Ilkovets (through translator):

    He doesn't have the support of the majority, and hasn't for the last five years. This past year has finished him. One bad decision after the other has led to this situation.

    We have one question: How long will it take? A week? A month? Who knows. But he has already lost. When blood was spilt, he was defeated.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Over the weekend, Belarus saw its largest rallies yet.

    After a week of post-election protests, in which thousands of people were arrested and police displayed unprecedented levels of violence, this is the scene exactly a week after the contested vote. And it's hard to imagine, with the number of people that have turned out, that things could ever be the same here.

    Just look at these numbers.

  • Anton:

    Today, we have some situations that we never had in our country. We can go free to this place. You can see no police. And this is a situation that I could never have imagined. I think that it's just the beginning.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The size of the crowds are extraordinary for any country, but especially for Belarus, where almost all forms of opposition have been suppressed for decades.

    Lukashenko purposefully restored the attributes of the country's Soviet past, reinstating tight control over politics and the economy, even bringing back the communist era flag ,after he came to power in 1994.

    But another flag seems to rule the streets of Belarus today, the red and white national flag originally adopted when the country gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union.

    These were the images that angered so many ordinary Belarusians, the bruised and bludgeoned bodies of those who were beaten in the streets or taken into police custody.

  • Artyom Pronin (through translator):

    So on the 11th, in the evening, I was taken into custody and let go on the 15th in the early morning. They took me to the car. They said, come with us. Then they started beating me immediately.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But Lukashenko hasn't given up power yet, and has called for assistance from his ally Vladimir Putin in Moscow, despite a strained relationship over the last few weeks and months.

    He told his supporters on Sunday that the protest movement was a foreign-inspired plot.

  • Alexander Lukashenko (through translator):

    They are offering us a new government, which is being created abroad, two of them. One of them is waiting in America. We don't need foreign governments. We need our own government, our own leadership. And we get to choose it.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In the meantime, opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania last week, said she was ready to return to head a caretaker government that would organize new elections.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (through translator):

    I never wanted to be a political leader. But fate conspired to put me on the front line in the battle against arbitrary rule and injustice.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    And now that much of the country is engaged in that battle, the fate of Lukashenko and Belarus remain in the balance.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in Minsk.

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