MINSK — The Belarus capital of Minsk was largely quiet a day after tens of thousands of protesters flooded the city on Sunday, calling for an end to the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. But authorities again moved to target leaders of the protest movement.
Belarus’ security force, still known as the KGB, detained the leader of a strike committee at Belaruskali, one of the largest factories in the Eastern European country. Anatoly Bokun, who had been leading a strike at the potash factory in the city of Soligorsk, was given a 15-day jail sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest.
In Minsk, security agents on Monday also detained Lilia Vlasova, a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, which was created to negotiate a transfer of power. Vlasova was summoned by police on charges of taking part in an unsanctioned protest, local media reported.
The protests in Minsk have taken on a weekly rhythm, with demonstrations becoming far smaller during the week before erupting again on Sunday. The security forces have acted with greater confidence during the mid-week pause, detaining more protesters and last week jailing two opposition leaders for 10 days. Masked police ordered a small crowd of protesters to disperse from Minsk’s main Independence Square on Monday evening.
Authorities on Monday also blocked Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the 74-year-old Catholic archbishop of Minsk and Mohilev, from returning to Belarus. Last week, Kondreusiewicz condemned Belarsusian police for locking the doors of a Catholic church on Independence Square after protesters had fled inside.
Sunday night’s massive protest, which again drew more than 100,000 demonstrators, underlined the continuing scale of the opposition to Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. But it also highlighted the current stalemate in Belarus between the protesters and authorities, with no sign that the country’s well-equipped security forces are abandoning their embattled leader. Hundreds of riot police with shields, as well as camouflaged troops backed with armored vehicles, moved aggressively to block protesters in some places on Sunday. But the huge crowd again marched up to one of Lukashenko’s formal residences and halted in front of a line of police.
The protest was the first large one since Russian President Vladimir Putin warned he could send security forces into Belarus if protesters seek to remove Lukashenko violently. Putin said on Thursday he believed that was not currently necessary and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated that Monday, saying for now the Kremlin believes Lukashenko has the situation in hand.
“I would like to stress that at present the use of this reserve is out of question. At present we see that the situation is under control, so now there is no point to talk about it,” Peskov told reporters during Monday’s daily call. “Certain actions are continuing, but we can see that in this case, the republic’s law enforcement and leadership are keeping the situation under control in a rather confident manner and aren’t providing any chance for provocations to be staged.”
Belarus’ main opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against Lukashenko on Aug. 9 in the country’s contested election, warned Putin on Monday against sending Russian riot police to her country.
“We are extremely concerned about Mr. Putin’s statements about sending Russian riot police into Belarus. It would be a serious violation of Belarus’ sovereignty and would have grave consequences for relations between Belarus and Russia,” Tikhanovskaya’s press service told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
In a statement, Tikhanovskaya repeated her position that negotiations were needed for a way out of the crisis and that the opposition would welcome international aid in obtaining talks.
Lithuania, where Tikhanovskaya is currently sheltering, as well as Latvia and Estonia announced travel bans on Monday against 30 top Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, and called on the European Union to follow suit.
“We are giving a clear signal that such actions are not acceptable and that those responsible for such acts are not welcome in Latvia,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told the Baltic News Service. “We call upon the European Union to promptly proceed with similar decisions.”
Lukashenko has rejected demands from protesters to negotiate, instead proposing a discussion around potentially changing Belarus’ constitution — something the opposition has said it views as a stalling tactic.
“I believe that, despite everything, we have a somewhat authoritarian system of arrangements in civic life,” Lukashenko said during a televised meeting with the head of Belarus’ Supreme Court, discussing the country’s judicial system. “It’s an issue of personality, and it needs to be done so that the system is not tied to a personality, including Lukashenko.”
Few observers, though, believe Lukashenko — who has shown himself brandishing an assault rifle on the days of the past two protests and denounced demonstrators as part of a NATO plot to invade Belarus — is currently prepared to step aside.
Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council, said he did not believe the Kremlin was an enthusiastic support of Lukashenko, but that Putin’s message signaled in the short term they were determined he stay in place so a managed transition could be carried out in the future. A violent popular revolution that topples him is totally unacceptable to the Kremlin, Lukyanov said.
“Lukashenko is seen as the lesser evil. But I doubt very much that anybody in Moscow would put high stakes on him for the middle-term future,” Lukyanov said. “And of course now the task is to stabilise the situation, to keep him going.”