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MINSK — Massive protests again swept the Belarusian capital on Sunday — with tens of thousands of people braving ranks of riot police to continue pressing for the ouster of President Alexander Lukashenko.
But Lukashenko is showing no sign of giving way, and much of the opposition leadership is either out of the country or facing a crackdown by the regime. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the possible winner of the August 9 presidential election, is in Lithuania. Pavel Latushko, a member of the opposition’s Coordination Council, meant to work out a peaceful transfer of power in Belarus, left for Poland last week, saying he was in “constant danger of being detained and put into custody.”
Olga Kovalkova, another council member, was expelled to Poland on Saturday, while Liliya Vlasova, also on the council, was arrested last week and is being investigated for financial crimes.
That’s forcing the opposition inside Belarus to broaden their tactics. In addition to the massive weekly protests, they are trying to show the government’s loss of popular support by doing things like pressing MPs to withdraw their backing for Lukashenko, resigning en masse from government-controlled trade unions and staging boycotts of state-run banks.
A financial boycott is being coordinated by the opposition using popular social media channels on Telegram, a cloud-based encrypted messaging application.
“Every step is important now. We are using every opportunity to bring changes closer, to secure our goals,” said Maria Lukashuk, a 28-year-old activist who pushed to get the MP who represents her Minsk district to meet with opposition protesters. They wanted to know what Valery Voronetsky felt about the official results of the disputed election that gave Lukashenko 80 percent to 10 percent for Tikhanovskaya.
Grilling an MP
That’s an unusual request to make of a Belarusian MP. In last year’s parliamentary election, not a single opposition candidate was elected to the 110-member lower house of parliament in a vote that was condemned by independent observers. As a result, MPs have usually either ignored popular appeals in the past weeks or else made statements in support of Lukashenko.
This time, however, the pattern was broken. Voronetsky, a former deputy foreign minister and ex-ambassador to Slovakia and Austria, not only agreed to meet, but also expressed his dissent.
“Unfortunately, the election was conducted in such a way that did not inspire trust in the people,” the diplomat told over 200 people packed into a community house in a bleak district on the outskirts of Minsk last week.
“The responsibility for this rests with the Central Election Commission and the nation’s authorities in general,” he said, adding that people have a right to peaceful protest. “They are angry. They have a right to show the authorities that they do not agree. Unfortunately, instead of starting a dialogue, the authorities responded with force. A red line was crossed, one that should not have been crossed.”
More than 7,000 protesters were arrested in the aftermath of the election, with hundreds beaten and at least three people killed.
There are other ways of showing displeasure with the continued rule of Lukashenko, who’s been in power since 1994.
Minsk-based financial expert Alexander Mukha, 40, is taking part in a financial boycott, an action coordinated by the opposition using popular social media channels on Telegram, a cloud-based encrypted messaging application.
“I have temporarily suspended utility payments as well as the repayment of my mortgage loan to one of the state banks,” he said. “Currently, I also basically only buy foodstuffs and I try to do it at open markets where sellers do not pay VAT to the state.”
“The economic boycott can be seen as a form of specific internal sanctions by a section of Belarusian society against the regime in order to try and exert some influence on the ruling elites,” Mukha said.
On August 27, Lukashenko branded people who are “openly calling for destabilization of the financial market” as “rascals.”
“Some people have already succumbed to calls to withdraw foreign currency from our banks,” he told a government meeting. “We will not allow the collapse of the national currency.”
Lukashuk believes doing things like withdrawing money from state banks is justified. But she balks at calls for more radical action like tax evasion. “In this particular case, we go beyond the legal framework. This should not be done, despite the fact that we have been observing some kind of legal default in Belarus in recent weeks,” she said.
While Lukashenko has failed to end the protests, he’s had more luck in bringing striking workers to heel.
In recent days, many strike committee leaders have been fired, arrested or forced to leave the country in fear of prosecution.
On Friday, the strike committee at Belaruskali, the world’s largest producer of potash fertilizer, said most strikers have gone back to work as a result of a campaign of harassment against them.
“It’s true, strike activity has waned. This is because the workers want to strike legally, and this is very difficult in Belarus. Striking outside the law can get you involved in criminal charges,” said Olga Britikova, 48, a leader of the protest movement at Naftan, a petrochemical company based in the north of the country.
“However, people have not lost their protest mood,” she said, adding that many workers are considering resigning from state-controlled trade unions and joining independent ones. She’s quit the official union that supported Lukashenko during the election campaign.
“I have the feeling that Belarusians have suddenly woken up, that we are now reacting to every injustice. We are no longer staying silent to things we used to turn a blind eye to,” she said. “Right now there is enormous solidarity. If the authorities start to pressurize someone, we all get up to help.”