Momentum for factory strikes is winding down. Only a few days ago Belarus was boiling with opposition led protests and strike while the Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s claims the opposition’s program has failed. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against foreign interference in Belarus while the European Union has expressed concern with the situation in the country.
Workers’ strikes became a major boost to the opposition movement in Belarus as thousands of people went on to the streets to voice their protest against what they see as rigged elections. But as workers walk off the job to show their support for protesters, many now are asking what will be next for them and for Belarus.
Opposition leaders are trying to come up with a plan. They have set up a co-ordination council to discuss what to do next. However, at a press conference late on Tuesday, they spent much of their time denying President Alexander Lukashenko’s accusation that they were trying to seize power.
“We use only legal ways, legal and non-violent methods,” said Olga Kovalkova from opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s team, at the start of her speech. “All members of the council acknowledge that mass violations took place during the election campaign and the vote counting, they do not recognize the official results of the election. They regard the violence used by police force as criminal and demand to release all political prisoners.”
The members of the consultation council avoided giving direct answers when they were repeatedly asked about possible steps they could consider in order to move forward.
This lack of clarity about what to do next could seriously undermine the opposition movement. Already there are signs suggesting that the momentum for factory strikes could be winding down. According to Sergey Dylevskiy who represents strikers at the giant Minsk tractor plant (MTZ), about 20% of workers at the plant are on strike. The rest are too afraid to leave their jobs and support the movement, he said.
Sergey Korovach, a miller at MAZ – the Minsk Automobile Plant that makes heavy trucks and buses, said: Only a small fraction of over 10,000 MAZ workers went on strike on Tuesday. He says that many workers became discouraged by the low turnout and now preferred not to take a risk.
Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition figure, said: “I wouldn’t say that in order to continue the protests, we must have a leader.”
But without a clear leader, it is uncertain whether the opposition can mobilize the crowd.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to leave Belarus right after the vote. Her colleagues say that they expect her to be back soon and her return could inject fresh energy into the protest mood and create a character for people to rally behind.
During a meeting with the workers at the MTZ factory on Monday, for the first time since the protests started, President Lukashenko indicated a possible scenario of his departure from power.
“You need to adopt a new constitution through a referendum and then have new elections of the president, parliament and local government,” he said. “And I will step down according to the constitution.” He made it clear he would not do it under the pressure of street protests.
Following the biggest opposition rally in the history of independent Belarus last Sunday, thousands of protesters continue to gather in Minsk’s Independence Square during the evening. People in festive mood wave opposition flags and chant “Thank you” to those who joined the movement.
On the surface, it may look as if the protests may have reached a plateau.
Lukashenko accuses opposition of staging coup
President Lukashenko has accused the opposition of trying to stage a coup, amid widespread anger over a disputed election.
Speaking as opposition leaders formed a council to organize a transfer of power, he said: “We definitely consider this as an attempt to seize power.”
The opposition contests the official results of the August 9 poll, which gave Lukashenko 80% of the vote.
The country has since seen 10 days of street protests and strikes.
The protesters allege massive vote-rigging and say the winner was opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who officially secured only about 10% of votes.
There were no independent election observers.
Hundreds of protesters have been wounded and two have died in clashes with police during the post-election protests. Thousands have been arrested, and many have spoken of torture at the hands of security forces.
Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, insists he has won fairly and has ruled out holding another election.
In a televised meeting, Lukashenko said the group’s aim was clear: “They demand nothing less than the transfer of power. We see it unequivocally: it is an attempt to seize power… with all the consequences that come with it.”
At the weekend, more than 100,000 people gathered in Minsk – the largest protest held in Belarus since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 – to express opposition to his rule.
Strike action is also keeping up the pressure on the president. State TV and key factories have been affected, and postal workers are now also reported to have joined the strikes.
On Tuesday, hundreds of opposition protesters gathered outside a Minsk prison to mark the birthday of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s jailed husband.
Sergei Tikhanovsky, who has just turned 42, was detained on charges of inciting violence, alongside other rivals of Lukashenko ahead of the August 9 poll.
Ms Tikhanovskaya, who is now in Lithuania, ran in his place.
Many protesters held red-and-white balloons, the colors of the opposition, while some chanted “happy birthday Sergei” and sang a song about prison walls coming down.
Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, said her husband was spending his birthday in prison because of “a crime he did not commit.”
Lukashenko, who has maintained close ties with neighboring Russia, has sought Moscow’s help, saying President Vladimir Putin has promised to provide assistance in the event of any external military threat.
On Tuesday, Putin had phone calls with both Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Both said the Belarusian government must start a dialogue with the opposition. Putin told them that foreign interference would only escalate the crisis, Russian officials say.
EU leaders are to hold an emergency video summit on Wednesday. EU foreign ministers agreed last week to prepare new sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for “violence, repression and the falsification of election results.”
On Monday, the UK said it did not accept the results of the “fraudulent” election and U.S. President Donald Trump said his administration was following the “terrible situation” in Belarus closely.
Putin emphasized that external pressure on the Belarusian authorities is unacceptable.
“While discussing the tensions in Belarus, Vladimir Putin emphasized that it is unacceptable to intervene into the domestic affairs of Belarus and to put pressure on the Belarusian authorities. Both presidents confirmed their interest in the prompt resolution of the existing issues,” the Kremlin press service noted.
Earlier on August 18, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Angela Merkel. “The in-depth discussion focused on the post-election developments in Belarus. The Russian side stressed that any attempts to interfere in the country’s domestic affairs from the outside leading to a further escalation of the crisis will be unacceptable. The two leaders expressed hope that the situation will return to normal soon,” the press service noted.
Vladimir Putin also had a telephone conversation with President of the European Council Charles Michel. “In the run-up to the EU summit the parties discussed the current state of affairs in Belarus,” the Kremlin press service said in a statement. “The Russian side expressed concern over the attempts of a number of states to put pressure on the leadership of the republic and to destabilize the domestic political situation in every possible way. The interest was expressed in preventing a confrontational scenario.”
Lukashenko on Tuesday announced that he had ordered troops deployed to unspecified locations along the country’s western border.
Citing statements made by foreign governments, Lukashenko said in a televised meeting that the units were on full alert.
However, it was not immediately clear if the troop movements were new or part of planned military exercises that started Monday.
On its western side, Belarus borders Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – all three NATO members who have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation next door.
Last week, Poland called for a European Union summit on Belarus, and in an interview, Lithuania’s finance minister said doing nothing about the “lamentable” situation in Belarus is “not an option.” Latvia’s parliament approved a statement on Tuesday calling for new, internationally monitored elections in Belarus.
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Opposition’s coordinating council described as attempt to seize power in Belarus
The coordinating council set up by the opposition is an attempt to seize power with all the ensuing consequences, Belarus President Lukashenko said at a meeting with members of the Security Council on 18 August.
The head of state commented on the situation that is developing inside the country. “The new element is an attempt to lull the authorities, especially the law enforcement: they say ‘we are peaceful, we are nice, we no longer want confrontation’. This is not exactly true. This is a smokescreen. If you look behind it, you see what is happening,” said Lukashenko.
First, the president noted, they have set an opposition headquarters in the country for power transfer. “They are giving us a different angle. They demand to hand over power to them, no less. We see it unequivocally: this is an attempt to seize power with all the ensuing consequences,” the Belarusian leader said.
“I would like to warn the members of this headquarters that we will take adequate measures, in strict compliance with the Constitution and the law. They provide for sufficient measures to calm some hot heads,” Lukashenko said.
The head of state also commented on members of the opposition council: “Some of them were in power or close to power once. They were kicked out, hold a grudge. Others are outright Nazis. Just take a look at the names.”
All the enterprises are working, there are protesters at some of them
All the enterprises of the real sector of the economy are working as usual. There are groups of protesters at some of them, Prime Minister of Belarus Roman Golovchenko told BelTA on August 18.
The prime minister said: “Today all the enterprises of the real sector of the economy are operating in normal mode. No assembly lines have been stopped. People are working. It is an absolutely real situation. Indeed, at some enterprises there are groups of employees, who are inclined towards protests and may be dissatisfied with something. They protest in order to express their attitude to what is going on. But it is particularly disheartening that they are trying to involve others in their protests.”
Roman Golovchenko believes that small groups of people are putting efforts into making their protest mood look like a massive movement. In his opinion, the situation is totally different. “People want to work and earn money. In the course of communication with workers, one can clearly see one thought: even if someone demonstrates a different civic stance, has made a different choice, it should not be mixed with the operation of the economy. Because we are an open economy and should work at full capacity. Otherwise, we will be pushed to the road shoulder,” he stated.
In his words, the economy has not felt any consequences from protests at enterprises yet. “There are no negative consequences because no enterprise has been halted, all of them are operating as usual,” the head of government noted.
Foreign ministries of Belarus, Finland reaffirm commitment to dialogue
Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei had a telephone conversation with Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto on August 18.
“The ministers reaffirmed mutual commitment to maintaining communication channels, contacts and a dialogue,” the Belarus foreign ministry press service informed.