MINSK, Belarus Demonstrators again took to the streets of the Belarusian capital and other cities Thursday, keeping up their push for the nation’s authoritarian leader to step down after extending his 26-year rule in a vote the opposition saw as rigged.
President Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and threatened opposition leaders with criminal charges. Following that, a leading opposition figure reported receiving threats and being threatened with arrest.
The 65-year-old Belarusian leader dismissed the European Union’s criticism of the Aug. 9 vote and told its leaders to mind their own business.The EU leaders on Wednesday rejected the official results of the election that showed Lukashenko win 80% of the vote and expressed solidarity with protesters. The EU said its preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the brutal post-election police actions.
During the first four days of protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died.
The crackdown fueled massive outrage and swelled protesters ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds that grew to an unprecedented 200,000 on Sunday.
However, after standing back for days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets of the Belarusian capital Wednesday, blocking access to some government buildings and also deploying in numbers outside major factories where workers have been on strike since Monday.
The industrial action that has engulfed major factories across the country cast a tough challenge to Lukashenko, who had relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base.
In a bid to stop the strike from spreading, Lukashenko on Wednesday warned that the participants would face dismissal and ordered law enforcement agencies to protect factory managers from the opposition pressure.
The Belarusian leader also warned members of the Coordination Council who held their first meeting Wednesday that they could face criminal responsibility for their attempt to create parallel power structures.
The council called for a new presidential vote organized by newly formed election commissions and demanded an investigation into the crackdown on protests and compensation for the victims.
The opposition body consists of top associates of Lukashenkos main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers. It also includes the nations most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
A leading council member, Pavel Latushko, who was fired earlier this week for siding with protesters, said he had received threats and could move to Russia to avoid being arrested. The facade of his house in Minsk was splashed with red paint overnight.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.