Thousands of coerced Belarusian factory workers from across the country were on August 16 bussed into central Minsk for a pro-government rally, but the supposed show of strength by self-appointed president Alexander Lukashenko was dwarfed by enormous crowds that took to the streets in the capital and across the country. At least 100,000 people opposed to the Lukashenko regime came out in Minsk alone. Local media outlet tut.by put the crowd at 220,000 strong.
The mass of people assembled at Strela, or Minsk Hero City square, in the middle of the capital, in the biggest demonstration Belarus has ever seen. The protests come at the end of a dramatic week that followed incumbent Lukashenko’s attempt to blatantly falsify the presidential election results, award himself over 80% of the vote and then use the security services to brutally bludgeon people into accepting the situation.
Lukashenko attempted to counter the massive anti-regime turnout by addressing a pro-government rally with a speech that sounded shrill and desperate. He again invoked foreign powers as being behind the protests and predicted the collapse of the country unless the people rallied behind his leadership.
But the tide seems to have turned on August 13 when protestors refused to be cowed by the security services’ violence and the state called off the police. Long-time leader Lukashenko is clearly increasingly out of touch with the population and his long trusted tactics of coercion and violence no longer work thanks to the sheer scale of the protests and the galvanising effects of the simple election campaign seen from former English teacher and nominal victor in the election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Lukashenko appeared increasingly in denial as a large part of the regular population took to the streets only a short distance from his rally, while a growing number of members of the state machine defected to the opposition. The entire population has been radicalised and since the beatings came to an end, those wanting the president out are now confident they have the upper hand.
“What we observe right now it's not just the collapse of another dictatorial regime. It's the end of the USSR. Belarus for many years remained the last Soviet country pursuing its ideology and values. Lukashenka was perhaps not the last dictator in Europe but the last Soviet ruler,” tweeted independent journalist Franak Viacorka, who has become the voice to the international community on what is going on in Belarus and a major source of information for the rest of the world.
As the crowd left Stela after the demonstration was over a river of people flowed through the streets, waiving the red and white flag and chanting "Put Lukashenko in a paddywagon."
As the crowd left Stela they chanted "Put Lukashenko in a paddywagon!"
A ragged group of Lukashenko supporters marched along Independence Avenue after the autocrat’s address carrying the official green and red state flag, but the procession amounted to only a few hundred people, according to videos shot of the march.
There was a massive turnout even in the regional towns for the anti-government rallies. What seemed like the entire population of Grodno took to the streets shouting “Long live Belarus!” in a massive show of solidarity with the other protestors around the country. The scene was the same in Pinsk in Brest region were hundreds took to the streets, also shouting “Long live Belarus!” In another region one woman even joined the protests on a horse with the flag to applause from the locals.
Despite the euphoria at the anti-government rallies, in a sad footnote to the real pain Belarus is going through with its transition, the 25-year-old Alexander Vikhor was buried the same day in Homel. He was on the way to see his girlfriend, according to his mother, when he was snatched by riot police and bundled into a paddy wagon. He was apparently beaten and left in the wagon for hours. Vikhor was missing for several days until officials informed his mother that he had died while in custody.
Lukashenko appeals to the people
Lukashenko denigrated the protestors with his standard rhetoric, mixing abuse with appeals to his authority as “Batka” (his nickname, which means “Father”).
According to the official Belarus State Department numbers, Lukashenko addressed a crowd of 70,000 supporters who cheered him enthusiastically. The president even appeared to shed a tear or two at the start of his address. Unofficial sources say the crowd was closer to 2,000-4,000 in total. But even if the official numbers were accurate, Lukashenko’s rally would still have been tiny compared to the opposition gathering in Minsk.
"They [the opposition] may calm down now, but they won't disappear, they will crawl out of their holes like rats... The end of Lukashenko is the beginning of your end! But I'm alive and I will be alive!" Lukashenko told the crowd, with the last reference an echo of the old Soviet slogan: “Lenin lived. Lenin lives. Lenin will live.”
"We will never give them our country… Puppeteers are behind them," said Lukashenko. "I am here not because I want power. I gave my best years to my country!" he added, also declaring: "They want criminals and bandits free! They will be killing us and our kids! We know that!"
He went on: "They want to weaken us! … Who will conduct new elections? Bandits! … They say we are violent! But who provoked the violence? Them! … If we agree new elections, we will lose the country!
"We are offered Nato soldiers: black, yellow-mouthed, and white hair. I will never agree to that… I want our kids and grandchildren to live in their own state."
Lukashenko, widely seen as now desperately clinging on to his ‘elective dictatorship’, also declaimed: "Back then, in the 1990s, we lost the most important.. The huge and powerful empire. We were left with a bloody piece of that empire.
"Europe wants to turn Belarus into a toilet! They want to send Nato soldiers here, black and yellow, to whip us! You want this?!"
The crowd chanted back: "THANK YOU! THANK YOU!" in what was likely an orchestrated piece of political theatre.
Nexta organising force behind the demos
The people assembled in vast numbers at Stela, where there is an obelisk to commemorate Minsk’s “Hero” status thanks to its resistance to the Nazi advance in WWII. It has been the venue for many of the protests in recent days.
They were called out and coordinated by the Nexta Telegram channel that has been instrumental in organising the protests, in what has been an otherwise entirely bottom-up rebellion against Lukashenko’s regime.
Nexta called for the whole country to come out in protest on August 16 to counter the pro-government rally and gather in the central squares of all the regional cities to demand: “Immediate freedom for all detainees and political prisoners; Lukashenko’s departure; and justice for those guilty of murders and torture.”
If the protestors’ demands are not met, Nexta said people should assemble for another mass rally on August 17 at the MZKT factory that makes off-road vehicles and is part of the Minsk Automobile Works (MAZ), where Lukashenko is due to address workers.
“We are waiting there for ALL the workers of Minsk who are on strike in order to express their support at the same time. If Lukashenko doesn't want to answer to the people and runs away, Minskians should go to Independence Square and give officials one last chance to go over to the side of the people.”
Hundreds of buses
Unlike the opposition, the state had to organise things the old-fashioned way. Hundreds of buses brought workers from state-owned factories into Minsk to the pro-government rally.
According to reports, many of the workers tried to refuse to attend but were threatened with the sack if they did not go along. Lukashenko even ordered a few tractors to festoon the square where he spoke; this big and symbolic export item of Belarus is a feature that typically appears at most of his big set-piece speeches.
“Reports suggest factory workers were forced to go under threats of dismissal. It’s a well-used tactic in Post-Sovietland, and might give embattled autocrat some good footage, but unlikely much more,” tweeted Oliver Carroll, the Independent’s Russia correspondent.
The event was the first pro-Lukashenko public meeting since the election polls closed on the evening of August 9. Belarusians have joked that if Lukashenko had really won more than 80% of the vote, as the official results claim, where are the pro-Lukashenko counter-rallies?
It has taken the authorities a week to organise a token display of support, but as the coercion that went into forcing workers to attend has been widely reported on social media by the same workers that were pressured to attend, the impact of the pro-government rally is likely to be minimal.
“Buses bring ppl to Minsk for a staged “Pro-Lukashenka demonstration”. There are reports, soldiers have got orders to appear at this demonstration in plain clothes, playing civilians,” tweeted Sergej Sumlenny, a well-known Belarus-watcher.
Lukashenko’s regime is showing more signs of starting to crumble. Police and army officers are defecting to the opposition on a daily basis, albeit in small numbers so far.
To the list can now be added many TV celebrities that work for state TV who have been the face and voice of the Lukashenko regime for years. But in a much more significant move, state TV covered the opposition protests for the first time on August 16, reporting on the mass rallies in the centre of the city.
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State-owned broadcaster Belteleradio (BT) said that its workers will down tools on August 17 and some online channels already stopped broadcasting on August 16 as the mass rally was assembling in the centre of Minsk.
The defection of the state-controlled media will remove Lukashenko’s ability to manage a counter-message and attempt to deflect blame for the protests to “interference by foreign powers,” his standard line to date.
A red and white Belarusian flag appeared on the flagpole outside the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm, but it appears that it was a private endeavour, not ordered by the embassy. The mission is housed in an office building and many people have access to the flagpole.
However, the Belarusian Ambassador to Slovakia Igor Leschenya has changed sides and came out in support of the protestors. A former advisor to Lukashenko, he said: “Hundreds of my compatriots saw for themselves police rekindling the worst traditions of NKVD... The only source of power is the people.”
As more detainees are released from prison, reports continue to emerge of extra-judicial killings. While the official death count as of August 16 remains at two men, another circa 60 people remain unaccounted for and of those some are feared dead, reported local media outlet tut.by. Other victims are in hospital gravely ill. One 16-year old boy identified only as Timur, who was going fishing, was severely beaten by police and is currently in hospital in a coma.
After a slow start, the EU – the bloc has to do everything with a unanimous consensus – has started rolling out targeted sanctions against Lukashenko and the top officials responsible for organising the police brutality, detentions and falsification of the election.
It has also formally rejected the official election results which is a de facto acknowledgement that Tikhanovskaya is now the president-elect.
The decision to refuse to accept the election results is an unusually bold move by the EU. It further de-legitimises Lukashenko and bolsters the position of Tikhanovskaya, who is now in exile in Lithuania, offering her some protection as the acknowledged president-elect. It will also further strengthen the resolve of the crowds in Belarus as the EU has formally thrown its weight behind the mass protest movement. Finally, and probably most usefully, it will make Lukashenko’s elite more nervous and catalyse a collapse of support for the strongman leader.
The Helsinki Commission called on the US to impose sanctions on Belarus’ nine biggest companies. The move would cripple Belarus’ thriving export industry. Unlike Russia, Belarus is heavily dependent on the export of goods and services. These include some major revenue earners for the state.
The EU has promised to take more measures and will announce them at the end of August after its deliberations are complete.
Russia issues arrest warrants for leading opposition figures
Stepan Putilo, the creator of the Nexta Telegram channel that now has 2mn followers—amounting to 15% of the Belarusian population—and has been instrumental in organising the resistance to Lukashenko, as well as presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo, who was excluded by the Central Election Commission (CEC), are are both wanted in Russia, the database of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation showed on August 15.
"Valery Velyaminovich Tsepkalo, born in 1965, a native of Grodno, is wanted, Stepan Aleksandrovich Putilo, born in 1998, a native of the Minsk region, is wanted," the corresponding search cards of the database say.
Tsepkalo fled to Moscow in the days immediately before the election with his children, saying he had information he was about to arrested. He was joined by his wife, Veronika Tsepkalo, who was also afraid of arrest, a few days after the vote. Veronika Tsepkalo was one of a trio of women that ignited the protest movement against Lukashenko. The others were Maria Kolesnikova and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who won the election. Tikhanovskaya was coerced to leave the country for Lithuania a few days after the election by the Belarusian KGB and Kolesnikova is now the only one of the three that is still in Minsk.
Tsepkalo and his family are now reportedly in Kyiv beyond the reach of the Russian police. Valery Tsepkalo told reporters that a criminal case pursuing bribery had been initiated against him in Belarus.
Putilo, still in his 20s, set up Nexta as a channel to gather information on the mismanagement of Lukashenko’s regime. It had 300,000 followers before the election campaign started but that number has exploded to just under 2mn subscribers, as the channel has become the main conduit for sharing information and organising the protests. Telegram has been the only social media platform the authorities have been unable to block.
Putilo is a student in Poland but he was interviewed by two KGB officers last time he returned home to visit his parents and he says he will not go back again. Putilo’s last reported whereabouts were in Poland.