Strikers in Belarus press for authoritarian leader’s ouster

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People, most of them pensioners, hold old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Russia, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. Factory workers, students and business owners in Belarus have started a general strike, calling for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to resign after more than two months of mass protests triggered by a disputed election. (AP Photo)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Factory workers, students and business owners in Belarus on Monday began a strike to demand that authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko resign after more than two months of continuing mass protests following a disputed election.

Most state-run enterprises continued to operate despite the strike, which was called by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. But analysts said it helped mobilize opposition supporters for a new round of confrontation with authorities, posing a significant challenge for Lukashenko, who has run the country for 26 years and until recently has been able to successfully stifle dissent.

Students in some universities refused to attend lectures and marched in Minsk in protest. Hundreds of small private companies declared Monday a nonworking day, and shops and cafes closed, with their owners and employees forming human chains all over the capital.

Several divisions of large plants in Minsk said they were halting work, and employees of two plants in the western city of Grodno gathered in front of buildings there.

The authorities responded by detaining protesters in the streets and outside factories, threatening workers with jail or being fired if they went on strike, said Alexander Yaroshuk, leader of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Unions, an association of independent labor unions.

Several thousand retirees also marched in Minsk in their regular Monday protest to demand Lukashenko’s ouster. They chanted for him to “Go away!”

“We don’t see, hear or run well, but we understand perfectly well that Lukashenko lost,” read one of the banners carried by the pensioners.

In the evening, large crowds marched in Minsk as well. Protests also continued in Grodno, Brest and other cities. Police broke up the rallies in the capital, detaining and injuring dozens. The Viasna human rights center said more than 300 people were detained in different parts of Belarus throughout the day.

Near-daily protests were unleashed in the former Soviet country of 9.5 million after officials said the Aug. 9 election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over Tsikhanouskaya, whose supporters refused to recognize the results. Early in the turmoil, authorities detained thousands and violently dispersed the crowds, but the marches and rallies have continued.

Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania for fear of her safety, urged the strike if Lukashenko did not resign, release political prisoners and stop the police crackdown by Monday. She gave the go-ahead for the strike to begin in a statement Sunday night after police in Minsk and other cities once again dispersed demonstrators with stun grenades and tear gas.

Sunday’s rally in Minsk was one of the largest in weeks and drew nearly 200,000 people. Smaller protests also took place in other cities, and the Interior Ministry said it detained over 500 people across Belarus.

“A strike is the next step towards freedom for Belarusians, towards the end of violence and new elections,” Tsikhanousksaya said in a statement Monday. “The main goal is to show that no one will work for the regime.”

Government officials said that all state-run plants, factories and enterprises continued to operate as usual.

In August, the government stemmed a strike at dozens of plants and factories in several cities. Lukashenko, who at one point was booed by workers when he visited a plant, is trying to avoid a repeat through repressions against plant workers, Yaroshuk said.

“People have things to lose, so the majority remains intimidated and continues to work under pressure,” the activist added.

Still, the opposition managed to mobilize its active supporters, said Minsk-based political analyst Valery Karbalevich.

“Even the threat of a strike makes Lukashenko nervous, and growing mass rallies show that the protest is not dying down, and the pressure on the authorities and officials within the country will continue to mount,” he said.

In a statement later Monday, Tsikhanouskaya thanked Belarusians for their solidarity and encouraged them to keep protesting. “We have irrevocably defeated the fear that the regime might suppress the protest,” she said.

“The protest will be over only when we achieve our goal. We’re together, there are many of us, and we’re prepared to go all the way to victory,” she said.

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