Former English teacher and nominal victor in Belarus’ presidential election Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has announced a “People’s Ultimatum” for Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko to resign within 13 days or see the country brought to standstill.
Tikhanovskaya said in a statement released on social media: Lukashenko must resign by October 25; all the street violence must end; and all political prisoners must be released.
Failure to comply will result in a “full national strike and road blocks,” Tikhanovskaya warned. “If you were waiting for my order then here it is,” she added.
“National leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called her demands 'The People's Ultimatum'. She described Lukashenka's intimidation, violence and recent targeting of the old as state terror. She also called on those staying silent to denounce the regime or be guilty by association,” Franak Viacorka, a local journalist who is close to the Tikhanovskaya team, said on Twitter.
The call to action comes a day after Belarus’ Ministry of Interior Affairs (known as MVD in Russian) issued a short statement saying it was authorising its forces, which include the notorious OMON riot police, to use live ammunition against demonstrators if they continue their “radical” protests. The opposition has been organising mass rallies every Sunday for the last two months that draw in some 100,000 people or more calling for Lukashenko to leave.
The MVD’s threat casts a pall over the rally this coming weekend that could potential end in bloodshed if Lukashenko carries through on his threat and orders his troops to fire on the inevitable large crowds.
The two back-to-back statements represent a radical scaling up of tensions that is almost certain to end in even more violent clashes than have been seen to date. And that could happen as soon as the weekend ahead.
As bne IntelliNews reported after the initial brutal police crackdown during the first three days of protests following the August 9 elections, there was one week of unfettered demonstrations, but Lukashenko has been gradually ratcheting up the violence in the last month and half after Russian President Vladimir Putin threw his weight behind him and said that Russia was willing to send a special military unit to quell the protests “if necessary” on August 27.
In just the last week OMON troops assaulted a rally of pensioners using flashbangs and tear gas against a group of several thousand largely elderly women, and separately leaked video showed security forces randomly beating detainees arriving at a detention centre with truncheons. Before that, the OMON had already taken the violence to a new level on the weekend on September 27, when masked OMON officers used stun grenades against protesters in the regional city of Homiel, liberally doused the crowd with pepper spray and fired multiple shots into the air to turn back a marching crowd on its way to the centre of the city, which ran to escape the onslaught.
Tikhanovskaya’s authority on the line
Tikhanovskaya’s decision to throw down the gauntlet may be connected to her conversation with her jailed husband at the weekend, the jailed opposition leader, popular video blogger and presidential candidate Sergey Tikhanovsky.
“We have to be tougher,” he told his wife in reported comments.
“Then we will be tougher,” she reportedly replied.
Tikhanovskaya’s authority has been growing inexorably over the last two months since she ran a highly successful election campaign against Lukashenko. Since she was forced into exile shortly after the presidential elections she has been touring the European capitals lobbying for support and potential economic aid packages should the people of Belarus be successful in ousting Lukashenko. She has been in Brussels to meet top EU dignitaries and held a one-on-one meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among others.
However, by calling for a general strike and what amounts to an economic blockage Tikhanovskaya is putting her untested authority on the line that will force the people of Belarus to make a definitive choice: do they trust Tikhanovskaya can deliver on the opposition’s promise push Lukashenko out of office and come out on strike en masse, as in doing so the blue collar workers risk their livelihoods and now death at the hands of the security forces.
While it is clear the population is united in its desire to see Lukashenko go, it is not clear how far they are willing to go to achieve that goal.
The opposition Telegram channel called for a general strike on the second day of mass protests following the presidential election, but the call went largely unanswered. Those factory workers that did come out on strike were quickly arrested and it was not until two days later when the scale and brutality of the police crackdown became clear that factory after factory came to standstill as workforces came out in support of protests.
However, as bne IntelliNews reported, since then the regime-loyal factory managers have been cracking down and sacking or suspending strike activist from their shop floors, and while many workers have passively resisted the authorities with an “Italian strike”, and even sabotaged their facilities, the strike movement has failed to reach critical mass.
“Whether Tsikhanouskaya can get state employees to join in the nationwide strike she is calling for if Lukashenko doesn’t accede to her demands (he won’t) will be key: Early days after 9 August vote saw lots of strikes at SOEs but lately it’s hard to see a critical mass joining,” said Maximilian Hess, head of political risk at Hawthorn Advisors.
Now both the urban Minskians and the workers at the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) face a starker choice. They much go beyond the passive resistance of the weekly Sunday afternoon marches and take a defiant stance against the still-loyal security forces, which now entails increasingly violent attacks by the police, loss of their livelihoods and possibly a violent death.
Belarus could be facing an all-or-nothing moment.
The effectiveness of Tikhanovskaya People’s Ultimatum that comes into effect in two weeks could determine which way the political crisis in Belarus goes.
The opposition leaders on the newly established Coordinating Council are now all in exile or in jail after factory worker Siarhei Dyleuski was sacked and forced to flee to Poland this week – the last member of the Presidium of the Coordinating Council still in the country.
“Sergei Dylevsky, the last leader of the Coordination Council, who was still in Belarus and not in detention, was forced to leave Belarus. He was forced to quit the job at Minsk Tractor Works, where he worked for 12 years and organised the strike committee. He is in Poland now,” Nexta reported on social media.
That means the people that will stand on the front lines and possibly be looking down the barrel of a gun have no leaders on the ground and are being entirely co-ordinated by the Nexta Telegram as the de facto leader, where most of its editorial leadership making the key decisions is largely based in Poland, not Belarus.
With the odds seemingly stacked against the opposition its advantage remains in its numbers and the very fact of the lack of leaders also makes it impossible to decapitate.
In retrospect Tikhanovskaya’s statement calling the people out could play a pivotal role in the showdown, as the key to the next phase is not her authority as a leader that is at stake, but the people’s belief they are in the right and their willingness to stand up for justice.
Tikhanovskaya made clear in her statement that now is the time to make a choice and she openly said that those that do not actively support the protests will be considered to be accomplices of the state and open to retribution should the revolution be successful.
“Two months ago we woke up like a normal day off and went to vote. And we all voted for change. Our last regular day off was two months ago. We took to the streets to get our votes back, and we got bullets, clubs, prison cells and the regimes’ cynical lies for it. They ask us during the strikes: “did you want a change?” they tell us: “Here’s a change for you.”,” Tikhanovskaya said in her statement.
“We will answer: this is not change. you have always planted us, and now you have begun to plant even more. You have always intimidated us, and now you have become even more intimidated. You have always hit men, and now you are hitting women, children and old people. Don't try to pass it off as dialogue. This is state terror. And everyone who has not yet decided to go over to the side of the people is an accomplice of terror. Declare publically that you no longer support the regime. Contact us through funds, letters or even acquaintances. If you do not do this, it means that our grandparents are beaten with your hands. It was because of you that they were threatened with weapons yesterday – perhaps for the first time since their terrible war childhood,” said Tikhanovskaya, referring to Belarus’ traumatic experiences in WWII.
“We have said many times that we are ready for dialogue and negotiations. But talking behind bars is not dialogue. Beating up your people after declaring their readiness for negotiations is not a dialogue. Lukashenko is killing his future and is trying to drag down officials, security officials and the entire Belarusian people. But we will not allow this.
“Two months of political crisis, violence and lawlessness have passed – and we’ve had enough. On October 25th we announce the People’s Ultimatum,” she said and then laid out the three demands.
She called for a “peaceful” mass rally on that day and a general strike to begin the following day of “all enterprises” as well as a general road blockade that will lead to “sales in state stores will collapse.”
“You are paralysing the life of our country, not realising that Belarus is more than a regime. Belarus is strong than the regime. Since you were waiting for an order, then here is an order. And the deadline for its execution is until October 25th,” Tikhanovskaya concluded.