As Belarusian voters continue rallies nationwide against alleged police brutality and election fraud, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on August 15 spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a joint response to what he termed “a threat” against the security of both Belarus and Russia.
“This is a threat not only to Belarus … “ Lukashenka told a televised Belarusian government meeting ahead of the call. “I want to say that the defense of Belarus today is no less important than the defense of our entire space, the union state [between Belarus and Russia], and an example to others. If Belarusians can't hold on, this wave will roll there [to Russia and the region].”
Protesters do not understand this “threat,” he charged. “They only understand the people who coordinate them, direct them.”
The Belarusian leader’s official website only confirms that Lukashenka and President Putin discussed “the situation” both within and “around Belarus" on August 15.
Describing the call, the Kremlin press service reported that “confidence was expressed by both sides that all the problems encountered [from the protests] will soon be regulated.”
“The main thing is that these problems are not used by destructive forces aiming to harm the two countries’ mutually advantageous cooperation within the framework of the union of states," it said.
Kyiv-based political commentator Alyaksandr Feduta, a former Lukashenka press secretary and campaign aide, believes that the Belarusian leader intended his telephone call as a warning to protesting Belarusians that “some kind of military support” from Russia could be used to put down the demonstrations; a scenario Feduta termed potential “geopolitical suicide” for Moscow.
Following his phone call with President Putin, Lukashenka met with senior Defense Ministry officials, to whom he repeated earlier statements that “We won’t give the country up to anyone. We’ll maintain the situation.”
The Belarusian government has not elaborated about what form any cooperation with Russia might take.
The overture to Putin, however, marks an abrupt about-face in Lukashenka’s recent public remarks about Russia.
In late July, the Belarusian leader indicated that Russia, Belarus’ eastern neighbor, posed the most immediate threat to this Eastern European nation of some 9.5 million. He charged that 33 detained male Russian citizens were mercenaries dispatched to Belarus to stage a violent public uprising. The Interior Ministry announced a search for other such individuals, and state media duly mentioned “Russians” among the alleged foreign provocateurs entering Belarus.
But now, Minsk no longer appears to need that message.
On August 14, Belarus’ Central Election Commission announced final official results for the presidential vote that gave Lukashenka 80.1 percent of the vote – eight times the amount received by his closest contender, 37-year-old Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, according to the CEC’s figures.
That same day, 32 of the 33 Russian detainees were returned to Russia, the country’s state-run RIA Novosti agency announced. (The 33rd detainee has dual Belarusian-Russian citizenship and will remain in Belarus, according to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office.)
Vladimir Putin on August 10 congratulated Lukashenka with his reelection – his fifth since 2001 – but has not commented publicly about the protests in Belarus.
One concept, however, already clearly unites Lukashenka and Putin – opposition to so-called “color revolutions,” a term that both men use to mean public uprisings staged to conceal a foreign government’s attempt to overthrow an elected leader.
Lukashenka has charged that Belarus’ protests against his reelection, which began on August 9 after polls closed, employ “the methods of a color revolution” and suggest “foreign intervention.”
Russia, at least, appears already to have come up with one potential culprit. Russian state-run and pro-Kremlin media this week began to blame Ukraine, which itself experienced revolutions in 2005 and 2014, for Belarus’ detention of the 33 Russian men; an event these outlets earlier called “an illegal detention of tourists,” Current Time’s Footage Vs. Footage reported.
The detained Russians “fell into a trap, rigged by the Ukrainian special services,” alleged the pro-Kremlin NTV. The government-run Russia 1 speculated that this supposed operation was intended “to make Moscow and Minsk argue with each other ....”
For its part, Belarusian state media now informs audiences that “third forces” can also hire private mercenaries.
To what extent any collaboration with Russia would discourage Belarusians from taking to the streets to protest police violence and suspected vote fraud remains unclear. Those interviewed by Current Time maintain that they no longer believe Lukashenka’s statements.
On Saturday, thousands of people, many bearing flowers, gathered outside a family funeral service in Minsk for Alyaksandr Taraykovski, a 34-year-old man who died during the August 10 election protests in the Belarusian capital. The Interior Ministry has attributed his death to the detonation of an explosive device it alleges Taraykovski was holding at the time.
A man who says he witnessed Taraykovski collapsing during the protest told Current Time, however, that Taraykovski was holding nothing other than a bottle of water. The man, who gave his name as Syarhey, blamed his death on possibly a stun grenade that fell nearby or skyward shots from security forces in the area. He alleged that these individuals did not allow anyone to approach Taraykovski once he fell.
More than 7,000 people have been detained and hundreds wounded, sometimes severely, since the demonstrations began.
Amidst rising public anger at the harsh crackdown on these protesters, the Interior Ministry has released 2,000 detainees since August 13.
The releases, however, appear to have done little to quell outrage at the government. Many of the men released displayed for cameras signs of severe beatings on their bodies.
One 25-year-old man in the southeastern city of Homel is reported to have died in prison after he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in what police term “public unrest.”
In Minsk a bearded young man among the crowd commemorating Taraykovski’s death stressed that there should be no forgiveness for police who have brutalized protesters or detainees.
These reports of violence also distressed one older member of the crowd: “We’re Belarusians. Why should we hit each other, humiliate each other? It’s scary, actually,” one grey-haired man, holding a bouquet of flowers, commented to RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service.
As the European Union’s foreign ministers agreed to move forward with sanctions against Belarusian officials for the reported torture of detainees, Interior Minister Yury Karayev on August 14 apologized if “random people” had been injured when security forces responded to the post-election demonstrations.
“I am not a bloodthirsty person and I do not want any violence,” Karayev said in an interview with the government-run ONT television channel. “They are all our citizens. They all have families, children.”
He did not acknowledge, however, that violence against detainees has occurred in Belarus’ detention centers.
President Lukashenka, so far, has not held any official responsible for the alleged abuse. His one public concession, to date, was to urge police to remember that, as Christian Slavs, they should not beat someone who is lying on the ground.
He has warned Belarusians not to attend the demonstrations and become “canon fodder” for outsiders’ cause.
He has dismissed large-scale protests at Belarusian industrial concerns as public displays staged by “our opponents.”
“There’s no need to lull us with peaceful rallies and demonstrations,” he said of these supposed actors in remarks to senior officials on August 15. “We see what’s going on in the provinces. We see this very well.”
Investigations related to an alleged protest plot are ongoing.
Belarus’ Investigative Committee filed criminal charges on August 14 against Stepan Putilo (Svetlov), the 22-year-old founder of the popular Telegram video channel NEXTA, which , amidst a national Internet outage, has broadcast multiple recordings of police beating suspected protesters. Under the charges, Svetlov faces a potential 15-year prison term.
On August 12, individuals who had campaigned for former jailed banker Viktar Babaryka, a potential presidential contender now charged with financial crimes, were detained for supposedly also organizing the demonstrations.
These detentions followed a press briefing by former Babaryka campaign coordinator Maryya Kalesnikava in which she blamed Belarusian security personnel for allegedly threatening candidate Tsikhanouskaya at an August 10 meeting in the Central Election Commission.
Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus suddenly for Lithuania on the night of August 10 - August 11. In one video posted on Telegram after her departure, she calls on supporters to stop protesting against the presidential election results.
CEC Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina, who considers herself “a member of the president’s team,” confirmed in an August 14 interview with the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that Tsikhanouskaya had recorded the video in Yermoshina’s office, where she met with “two senior representatives of law-enforcement organs.”
The video, Yermoshina stated, was not made in her presence.
On August 14, Tsikhanouskaya issued yet another video in which she called on the mayors of Belarus’ towns to stage rallies over the weekend of August 15-16 for the end of police violence and the start of government talks with protesters.
“Even half a year ago, no one believed that Belarusians will be able to unite and say ‘No’ to the old authorities,” she said. “But this has happened. You came to the polling stations and made your choice, according to the law – peacefully and with dignity.”
Tsikhanouskaya stated in a separate Telegram video that she has started to form a “coordinating council” for “the handover of power,” and is prepared to hold talks with the government.
Neither President Lukashenka nor CEC Chairwoman Yermoshina appear likely to consider any such dialogue, however.
Remarked Yermoshina to Komsomolskaya Pravda: “If people think that we will reconsider and award victory to Tsikhanouskaya, that's not the way it works."
-With additional reporting from TASS and BelTA