MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko warned Monday that the protesters who challenge the official vote results extending his 26-year rule will face a tough crackdown, deriding the opposition as “sheep” manipulated by foreign masters.
Dozens were injured and thousands detained hours after Sunday’s vote, when police brutally broke up mostly young protesters with tear gas, water cannons and flash-bang grenades and beat them with truncheons. Rights activists said one person died after being run over by a police truck — which the authorities denied.
Election officials said Monday that Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, while opposition challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya got 10%. Tsikhanouskaya dismissed the official results as a sham and submitted a formal request for a recount to the Central Election Commission.
On Monday evening, scattered groups of opposition supporters began gathering in downtown Minsk, chanting “Freedom!” and “Long live Belarus!.” Heavy police contingents deployed to block central squares and avenues.
The brutal police crackdown drew harsh criticism from European capitals and will likely complicate Lukashenko’s efforts to mend ties with the West amid tensions with his main ally and sponsor, Russia.
But Lukashenko, whose iron-fisted rule since 1994 has fueled growing discontent in the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million, warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to use force again to disperse the opposition demonstrations. He argued that the protesters met a due response overnight after injuring 25 police officers and attempting to take control of official buildings in several Belarusian cities.
“We will not allow them to tear the country apart,” he said.
The 65-year-old former state farm director asserted that the opposition was being directed from Poland and the Czech Republic, adding that some groups in Ukraine and Russia could also have been behind the protests.
“They are directing the (opposition) headquarters where those sheep don’t understand what they want from them,” he said in a dismissive reference to Tsikhanouskaya and her campaign.
Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek dismissed Lukashenko’s claim, saying his country has not organized any protests.
The Interior Ministry said 89 people were injured during the protests, including 39 law enforcement officers, and about 3,000 people were detained, some 1,000 of them in Minsk. It insisted that no one was killed during the protests and called reports about a fatality “an absolute fake.”
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher without any prior political experience, entered the race after her husband, an opposition blogger who had hoped to run for president, was arrested in May. She has managed to unite fractured opposition groups and draw tens of thousands to her campaign rallies — the largest opposition demonstrations since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We don’t agree with (election results), we have absolutely opposite information,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press on Monday. “We have official protocols from many poll stations, where the number of votes in my favor are many more times than for another candidate.”
The coronavirus-induced economic damage and Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic, which he airily dismissed as “psychosis,” has fueled broad anger, helping swell the opposition ranks. The post-election protest, in which young demonstrators — many of them teenagers — confronted police, marked a previously unseen level of violence.
Internet and mobile networks went down after the polls closed as authorities tried to make it more difficult for protesters to coordinate.
“The more they beat us, the less we believe in the official results,” said Denis Golubev, a 28-year-old IT specialist who joined the protests. “They cut the internet and blocked communications to shut our mouths, but it won’t stop the protests.”
The European Union condemned the police crackdown and called for an immediate release of all those detained.
In a joint statement, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the EU commissioner responsible for relations with Europe’s close neighbors, Oliver Varhelyi, lamented that “the election night was marred with disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters.”
“The Belarusian authorities must ensure that the fundamental right of peaceful assembly is respected,” they said.
Belarus’ EU and NATO neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, also issued strong rebukes. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on European Union’s leaders to convene an extraordinary summit to support the Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations.
The U.K. Foreign Office also urged Belarusian authorities to “refrain from further acts of violence following the seriously flawed presidential elections” and warned that ”the attempts by Belarusian authorities to suppress protests are completely unacceptable.”
In the early 2000s, the United States and the European Union slapped sanctions against Lukashenko’s government, but they lifted most of the penalties in recent years after Lukashenko freed political prisoners and allowed some opposition protests.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has recently sought to improve long-strained ties with Lukashenko, who some officials believe could be a valuable partner in countering Russian influence in eastern and central Europe. In early February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. chief diplomat in more than 25 years to travel to Belarus, and offered to sell U.S. oil and gas to the country to reduce its dependence on Russian energy.
The administration has also nominated career diplomat Julie Fisher as ambassador to Belarus. If confirmed by Senate, she would be the first U.S. envoy to the country since 2008.
Fisher told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at her confirmation hearing last week that her task would be “to re-establish the bilateral relationship and to support Belarus’ efforts to protect its sovereignty and independence in the face of political pressure aimed at undermining both.”
Throughout his tenure, Lukashenko has tried to exert pressure on the Kremlin with the prospect of normalizing ties with the West in a bid to win more Russian subsidies.
The violent crackdown now appears certain to derail Lukashenko’s hopes for closer ties with the West, even as he tries to resist what he describes as Russia’s attempts to encroach on Belarus’ independence.
Moscow this year cut supplies of cheap oil to Belarusian refineries, depriving the country of an estimated $700 million in revenues from oil product exports to the West. Russia-Belarus ties were further strained last week, when Belarusian law enforcement agencies arrested 33 Russian private military contractors and accused them of planning to stage “mass riots.”
Moscow has rejected the charges. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Lukashenko Friday to mend the rift, and quickly congratulated him Monday on winning the vote. The Belarusian leader also received congratulations from Chinese President Xi Jinping and heads of several ex-Soviet nations.
Analysts warn that even though Lukashenko can easily suppress the opposition protests, he will face mounting challenges ahead.
“Lukashenko’s victory will bring him no relief, it will only exacerbate both domestic and external problems of Belarus that will snowball,” said Artyom Shraibman, an independent political analyst based in Minsk.
Associated Press journalists Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Daria Litvinova in Moscow, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Matthew Lee in Washington, Danica Kirka in London, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this story.