Attempts by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to crush popular protests against him failed on Sunday when more than 100,000 people marched to his residence in the capital Minsk, among other demonstrations around the country.
There was no indication that the anti-Lukashenko movement was diminishing or disappearing. Instead, the protesters took to the streets in large numbers for the fifth consecutive weekend, defying riot police, who cordoned off the city center with military vehicles.
The continuing scale of the protests is embarrassing for Lukashenko, who will meet Vladimir Putin at a Russian resort in Sochi on Monday. This will be his first face-to-face after the Belarussian presidential election on 9 August, widely seen as rigged.
Lukashenko claims that he won a resounding victory and started a popular rebellion against his 26-year rule. In recent times their security forces have sought to recapture the initiative of kidnapping and deportation of members of the main opposition organization, the Coordination Council.
But the strategy has failed to thwart the anti-government mood. Protesters gathered in Minsk on Sunday for the latest protest on Sunday afternoon. He sought to misjudge the officers by diverting the route and walking towards Drozdi, where the houses of senior governance officials, including Lucchenko, are located.
The riot police dropped the accused of the riot riots to the ground and dragged them. At least 250 people were arrested and dumped in Minivans. The detentions are followed by the arrest of 114 people on Saturday in the Peaceful Women March in Minsk.
The protesters carried white and red flags of the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, which have become a symbol of protest. A long queue of police chanting slogans included slogans such as “Resignation”, “We are the power here” and “Shame” that blocked their way to the Arena City Shopping Center.
Similar protests and arrests took place in other Belarusian cities including Brest, Gomel, Grodna and Mogilev.
The opposition’s slogan was Sunday’s protest: “We will not let him sell the country.” There are fears that a weakened Lukashenko will allow a soft Kremlin takeover of Belarus in exchange for Russian support and security assistance that allows him to remain in power. Some in the crowd criticized Russia.
The meeting on Monday in Sochi is likely to be a delicate balancing act. Lukashenko seeks Putin’s support, but is not willing to sign the country’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, Putin has long found Lukashenko a hopeless and unreliable partner, but has decided to return him, at least for now.
But by instigating an unpopular ruler from his sell-out date, Putin risked public sentiment against Russia. Opposition figures have made it clear that their feud is not with Moscow, but with a president they believe is illegitimate and whose ruthless tactics have alienated many.
“The people of Belarus are in support of Putin in support of Lukashenko,” said opposition politician Velary Tsepalko over phone from exile in Poland.
There is a risk that “Russia will replace the most favorable neighbor, in a population that sees them as supportive of Lukashenko and his totalitarianism,” said Nigel Gold-Davis, former UK ambassador to Belarus.
The evidence suggests that Lukashenko is determined to use any means necessary to avert international pressure and to wipe out opposition.
Last week, masked people in civilian clothes caught Maria Kolnikova on the street of Minsk. Kolenikova is one of three prominent female opposition celebrities who led the election campaign against Lukashenko. Police also seized Maxim Zanak, another member of the coordination council’s seven-man presidium.
Kolnikova was taken to the Ukraine border but in the early hours of Tuesday she snatched her passport and refused to leave the country. He is now in the pre-trial detention center of an interior ministry and has been accused of summoning him for a coup. Kolenikova is in prison for between two and five years.
Svetlana Tikankovskaya, who stood against Lukashenko and is now in exile in Lithuania, paid tribute Sunday to those inside the country who are opposing Lukashenko’s rule. “In the last month we have become truly brave people. We are continuing our fight for independence.
On Friday, the US said it would impose new restrictions on Belarusian figures within days and warned Moscow that continuing Lukashenko would only alienate its people. US State Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Bezgon asked how Moscow could “withdraw such governance and such violence against peaceful citizens”
“If the Kremlin continues this path, it turns to the Belarusian people, who have no complaints with Russia against Moscow,” he said.
The European Union said on Saturday that it ended “increasingly open disregard for the rule of law in Belarus” and reiterated its determination to impose sanctions. It said it was “ready to take further restrictive measures as necessary”.