Putin Warns The World Not to Interfere in Belarus

Published August 18th, 2020 - 10:45 GMT
A Belarus opposition supporter shouts as he holds a giant former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government, during a demonstration in central Minsk on August 16, 2020. The Belarusian strongman, who has ruled his ex-Soviet country with an iron grip since 1994, is under increasing pressure from the streets and abroad over his claim to have won re-election on August 9, with 80 percent of the vote. Sergei GAPON / AFP
A Belarus opposition supporter shouts as he holds a giant former white-red-white flag of Belarus used in opposition to the government, during a demonstration in central Minsk on August 16, 2020. The Belarusian strongman, who has ruled his ex-Soviet country with an iron grip since 1994, is under increasing pressure from the streets and abroad over his claim to have won re-election on August 9, with 80 percent of the vote. Sergei GAPON / AFP
He also ruled out a palace coup, saying: 'Over 26 years, Lukashenko has chosen very obedient deputies and very obedient military... they are handsomely paid.' 

Vladimir Putin has warned the world not to interfere in Belarus and told Angela Merkel that any intervention will be 'unacceptable' after the EU threatened sanctions.

The Russian President spoke with the German Chancellor by telephone today following outcry in the West over the dubious election results and the ensuing crackdown on dissenters by strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko.  

It comes after Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said 'individuals who have instigated violence or election fraud' could be targeted by EU sanctions.  

Putin has already offered to put boots on the ground in the allied country to maintain order, prompting Donald Trump to warn that the US is 'watching closely'. 

Belarus has been rocked by days of mass protests since an August 9 election which saw Lukashenko, known as 'Europe's last dictator', claim victory with 80 per cent of the vote despite widespread allegations of cheating. 

Police responded by violently repressing the demonstrations. At least two people have been confirmed dead, amid claims that protests are being tortured in jail.

Opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher, has been forced to flee the country to Lithuania as members of her party were rounded up and arrested.

Protests continued overnight Monday, with activists gathering outside a detention centre in Minsk where some of their fellow demonstrators are being held.

Ms Laya spoke to Spanish media about sanctions, ahead of a meeting of EU ministers which is due to take place Wednesday.

'We, in Europe, think there is room for sanctions, not against the country or against the country's citizens, but against the individuals who have instigated violence or election process fraud,' she said.

Meanwhile the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia announced he will be stepping down from his post after throwing his support behind the protesters.

Igor Leshchenya said he stands in 'solidarity with those who came out on the streets of Belarusian cities with peaceful marches so that their voice could be heard.'

He added that he was shocked by reports of mass beatings and torture, and accused Belarusian law enforcement of restoring the traditions of the Soviet secret police. 

A brutal crackdown by Lukashenko's regime has failed to stop a wave of strikes and demonstrations in Minsk which drew as many as 200,000 people on Sunday and continued on Monday. 

As the crisis escalates, workers have turned on Lukashenko at state-owned factories where he usually enjoys strong support, with the president shouted down as he tried to give a speech at a tractor works.  

The country's opposition leader has said she is ready to take over if Lukashenko is toppled by the protests.  

Lukashenko, 65, who has been in power for 25 years, has rejected any possibility of repeating the vote that gave him a sixth term, lashing out at the West and declaring his country will 'perish as a state' if the vote is rerun. 

'We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,' he told workers at the tractor plant.  

Offering to change the constitution, he said: 'We'll put the changes to a referendum, and I'll hand over my constitutional powers. But not under pressure or because of the street.

'Yes, I'm not a saint. You know my harsh side. I'm not eternal. But if you drag down the first president you'll drag down neighbouring countries and all the rest.'

Workers at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT) shouted the president down with chants of 'Leave!' as he tried to give his speech, before a visibly angry president walked off the stage.   

Britain has said the election was 'fraudulent' and said that 'the UK does not accept the results', calling for sanctions and a probe into the alleged poll-rigging. 

'The world has watched with horror at the violence used by the Belarussian authorities to suppress the peaceful protests that followed this fraudulent presidential election,' foreign secretary Dominic Raab said. 

Meanwhile Germany's Angela Merkel denied speaking with Lukashenko by phone following his 'victory', after the strongman leader claimed otherwise.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is 'watching closely' in Belarus and remained ready to defend its members, while Ukraine announced it was withdrawing its ambassador to Minsk.

'The development of events in Belarus, whose society has expressed a vote of no confidence in the official results of the presidential elections in Belarus, is fundamentally changing the situation in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations,' Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. 

EU leaders are set to hold emergency talks by video conference on Wednesday after European Council chief Charles Michel said violence against protesters was 'unacceptable and cannot be allowed'.

Lithuania's foreign minister Linas Linkevicius said today that any Russian intervention would 'constitute an invasion'. 

'Russia would risk a lot if it did it, in the face of what is going on in Belarus, in the face of the popular support. It should figure out that an invasion would not be justified, neither legally, nor morally, nor politically', he said. 

Poland said today it was monitoring the situation at its border with Belarus after Lukashenko claimed NATO was conducting a military build-up.   

Belarus's former leader Stanislav Shushkevich, 85, said Lukashenko was facing the biggest challenge to his rule during his 26 years in power.

However, Shushkevich - an old political foe of Lukashenko - said the president was likely to survive with Russian backing. 

'You can't say that the Lukashenko era is ending. I don't think you can say that for one simple reason. Lukashenko serves the Kremlin because otherwise he wouldn't be able to hold on,' he said. 

Moscow sees Belarus as a vital transit corridor for its oil and a buffer zone protecting Russia against the assembled NATO forces in Europe.  

While military support may not be needed because of the size of Belarus's own army, the Kremlin could also prop up the economy with financial help, Shushkevich said. 

'In such conditions, it's difficult for the beaten and tortured Belarusian opposition to struggle with Russia,' he said. 

He also ruled out a palace coup, saying: 'Over 26 years, Lukashenko has chosen very obedient deputies and very obedient military... they are handsomely paid.' 

In the days after the election, police and security forces used extreme violence in an attempt to stop demonstrations, using mass arrests and beatings.

A violent police crackdown saw more than 6,700 people arrested, hundreds wounded and two people dead. 

Nonetheless, protests continued for an eighth day on Sunday with up to 200,000 people gathering in Minsk to demand Lukashenko's resignation. 

Demonstrators held placards with slogans such as 'You can't wash off the blood' and 'Lukashenko must answer for the torture and dead'. 

The unrest has also spread to factories and official media which are usually loyal to the president. 

Workers at state-owned factories that make cars and tractors went on strike on Friday, despite the president usually enjoying strong support among state employees.

Other major towns and cities in the ex-Soviet country also saw large rallies, while there were also shows of support in the Czech Republic, Romania and Poland.  

Unusually, tightly-controlled state television aired a short item on the 'alternative protest' in Minsk, while not showing anti-Lukashenko slogans. 

The protests have been described as the largest in the country's post-Soviet independence.

The demonstrations were called by Tikhanovskaya, 37, the leading opposition candidate who claims to have won the election but has now fled to Lithuania. 

The former English teacher has called for anti-government demonstrations to continue to keep the pressure on Lukashenko.   

Lukashenko has claimed that Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are involved in a 'build up of military might' on the country's borders and in response his regime has announced military exercises close to the Lithuanian frontier. 

Yesterday he said: 'NATO troops are at our gates. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and our native Ukraine are ordering us to hold new elections.'

Lukashenko added that Belarus would 'die as a state' if new polls were held. He said: 'I have never betrayed you and will never do so.'  

Putin has told Lukashenko that Russia is prepared to assist and 'solve the problems that have arisen' from 'external pressure', the Kremlin said, backing Lukashenko's claims that the protests are part of a Western plot to oust him. 

There was also a pro-Lukashenko rally yesterday although opposition media claimed the crowd had been coerced into attending.  

The Belarus Interior Ministry said there were no arrests at Sunday's rallies, although local media reported a few people had been detained.  

A series of state employees, including some police officers and state TV staff, have come out in support of the protests. 

The opposition also published footage of Belarus's ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leschchenya, expressing his solidarity with protesters and saying he was 'shocked by stories of torture and beatings. 

The EU is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Belarus in response to the violent crackdown. 

The UK government warns that the authorities 'show little tolerance for their opposition counterparts'. 

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. Belarus is the only European country that carries out the death penalty.  

The woman trying to bring down 'Europe's last dictator' is a 37-year-old English teacher described as an 'accidental Joan of Arc' who ran for the presidency of Belarus after her husband was arrested and barred from the ballot in May. 

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's unlikely rise to political stardom has posed the most serious challenge to strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko in his 26 years in power. 

After entering the race and moving her two children abroad for their own safety, she told supporters that 'I don't want power... I want to get my children and husband [back] and I want to keep frying my cutlets.' 

But she now says she is willing to take power if Lukashenko is toppled by the mass protests which have engulfed the ex-Soviet nation since both candidates claimed victory in the disputed August 9 election.   

Tikhanovskaya was born in 1982 in Mikashevichi, a small town south of Minsk in what was then the Soviet Union.  

As a youngster she spent several summers in the Republic of Ireland under a charity scheme to help children who lived near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. 

The explosion took place in northern Ukraine and the contamination spread into Belarus, affecting thousands of people. 

After the fall of Communism, Tikhanovskaya studied to become an English and German teacher in the historic city of Mozyr in the south of Belarus. 

While in Mozyr, she met her future husband Sergey who owned a nightclub in the city. 

After working as an English teacher and translator, she stepped back from her career to look after the couple's two young children, now aged five and 10. 

Henry Deane, one of the volunteers who looked after Svetlana in Ireland, said she had given up work to help her son who has severe hearing problems. 

'She moved the family to Minsk so that he could have the implant operation he needed,' Mr Deane told the Guardian

'She poured her life into looking after her son and daughter. She is a devoted mother.'

Sergey, now 41, is a prominent blogger in Belarus who hoped to run for president when Lukashenko sought a sixth term in this year's election. 

But he was arrested and jailed in May on what Tikhanovskaya says were trumped-up charges of assaulting a police officer. 

Amnesty International said the arrest appeared to be 'politically motivated' and said Tikhanovsky had tried to avoid a scuffle with police despite being provoked.  

Authorities said they had opened a criminal case against Tikhanovsky for 'obstructing elections', using what Amnesty described as 'vague language'. 

Police claimed they also found an unexplained $900,000 hidden in the couple's sofa, which Tikhanovskaya said she knew nothing about. 

The arrest prevented Sergey Tikhanovsky from submitting his candidacy in time, ruling him out of the presidential race. 

However, Belarus's electoral commission allowed Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to stand in his place. 

'I love my husband very much so I am continuing what he started,' she said. 'I love Belarusians and I want to give them an opportunity to have a choice.'

Lukashenko openly sneered at the idea of a female opponent, saying that the strains of the presidency would cause her to 'collapse, poor thing'.

But despite her lack of political experience, Tikhanovskaya's campaign rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds in Belarus since the fall of the USSR.   

In speeches, Tikhanovskaya calls herself an 'ordinary woman, a mother and wife' and rallies her crowds with calls for change.

'I have become the embodiment of people's hope, their longing for change,' she said - adding that she and her family had received threats during the campaign. 

Her husband has been accused of plotting mass unrest and collaborating with Russian mercenaries, claims which Tikhanovskaya has called 'very scary.'

Their two children were taken abroad for their own safety, and Tikhanovskaya herself is now in Lithuania. 

During the campaign she spoke of the difficulty of being separated from her children, including her hearing-impaired son. 

Her presidential campaign has also come under pressure from authorities, with campaign manager Maria Moroz arrested twice in the space of a week.  

Tikhanovskaya says that she lacks the 'massive charisma' of her husband, who has travelled around Belarus interviewing ordinary people for hard-hitting videos. 

She has sometimes struggled to articulate her political views, acknowledging she was not a politician but a 'symbol' of change. 

However, Tikhanovskaya's simple but direct speeches have prompted lengthy cheers at crowded rallies.

'Are you tired of enduring it all? Are you tired of keeping silent?' she asked supporters recently. 'Yes,' the crowd roared.

Allocated live slots on state television, she listed alleged lies by Lukashenko's regime, repeating: 'They won't show you this on television'.

'Unexpectedly her first speech on television was strong, without false notes or weak points,' wrote opposition newspaper Nasha Niva. 

She has accused Lukashenko of showing blatant disregard for the people during the coronavirus epidemic, which the president has dismissed as a hoax. 

The Village, a Minsk-based news site, called her 'an accidental Joan of Arc,' invoking the French peasant who helped achieve a pivotal military victory against the English in the 15th century. 

Tikhanovskaya has also been helped by two women with more political experience: Veronika Tsepkalo, whose ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign chief of ex-banker Viktor Babaryko who was also dropped from the polls and is in jail.

The two women have flanked Tikhanovskaya at campaign rallies, earning them the nickname of 'Charlie's Angels.'

Tikhanovskaya has started wearing her hair down and swapped severe dark clothing for pastels colours. 

The women wear t-shirts with a design featuring their signature gestures: Tikhanovskaya's punched fist, Kolesnikova's fingers in a heart shape and Tsepkalo's victory sign. 

After Lukashenko claimed a disputed victory last week, Tikhanovskaya indicated she had left Belarus to be with her children.  

'Children are the most important thing we have in life,' said the 37-year-old after leaving for Lithuania. 

However, she has continued to rally her supporters and said today she was willing to assume the presidency if Lukashenko was forced out.   

Tikhanovskaya urged security and law enforcement officers to switch sides - saying they would be forgiven if they abandoned Lukashenko now.  

'I did not want to be a politician,' she said. But fate decreed that I'd find myself on the frontline of a confrontation against arbitrary rule and injustice.'  

This article has been adapted from its original source.     

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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