MINSK -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have announced travel bans on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and 29 other Belarusian officials as pressure on the authoritarian ruler builds over election violations and a post-vote crackdown on protesters.
"We need peaceful dialogue and agreement between the regime and society, but we see that the regime is not ready for that," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on August 31 while announcing the measures.
"We see that we need to move forward and to show an example to other countries," he added.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics called on the rest of the European Union, which has been working on its own blacklist of Belarusian individuals, to take similar action “immediately.”
Besides Lukashenka, those included on the list drawn by the three Baltic states include the president’s eldest son, Viktar Lukashenka, who is also a member of the national Security Council, as well as top officials at the presidential administration, the Central Election Commission, the Interior and Justice ministries, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the State Security Committee, and the Investigative Committee.
Lithuania has been hosting opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled Belarus fearing for her and her family's safety after an August 9 election her supporters say she won.
Belarus’s election authorities declared Lukashenka, who has run the country for 26 years, the winner with just over 80 percent of the votes, sparking the largest protests seen in the country since it declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
According to Tsikhanouskaya’s team, she will address the UN Security Council on September 4 by video link at the invitation of Estonia, which is currently is a nonpermanent member of the body. She will also address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) four days later, her spokesman said on August 31.
On August 30, tens of thousands of Belarusians streamed into the center of the capital, Minsk, chanting “Happy Birthday, Rat!” and “Leave!” as they gathered outside the presidential palace where Lukashenka is currently staying. Many carried anti-Lukashenka signs, while one group carried a black coffin. Lukashenka, who was celebrating his 66th birthday, last week described the protesters as “rats.”
The BelaPAN news agency put the number of protesters in Minsk at more than 100,000.
Riot police blocked the crowds from advancing in several areas of the city and detained around 140 protesters near Independence Square and elsewhere, according to the Interior Ministry.
Detentions were also made as thousands of protesters rallied in other Belarusian cities, including Homel, Hrodna, and Mogilev.
Lukashenka has shown no intention of negotiating with the protesters, who he claims are influenced by outside forces.
In a show of defiance, Lukashenka was photographed carrying an automatic weapon inside the palace grounds on August 30. RIA Novosti, which first published the photograph, said it was sent to the agency by Lukashenka’s press secretary.
It is the second time since the protests began that Lukashenka has released photos of himself armed with heavy guns.
Belarus has been rocked by three weeks of protests and strikes after the nation’s election commission claimed Lukashenka won a new six-year term in a landslide victory.
The opposition claimed the election was marred by irregularities and rigged in Lukashenka’s favor.
Tsikhanouskaya attracted tens of thousands of supporters to her rallies across the country in the run-up to election day, underscoring the growing disillusion with Lukashenka’s Soviet-style rule.
However, the election committee claimed Tsikhanouskaya won only about 10 percent of the vote to Lukashenka’s 80 percent, angering voters and pushing them to take to the streets.
Unlike in the past, mass arrests and police torture in the days following the election failed to stem the protests, raising questions about whether Lukashenka can hold on to power.
In an attempt to stifle global coverage of the protests, the Belarusian authorities stripped the accreditations from at least 17 journalists representing major foreign news organizations, including RFE/RL.
The West has condemned the vote and the harsh police crackdown on opposition protesters, forcing Lukashenka to look to Moscow for support.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on August 31 that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Uladzimer Makey, on September 2 in Moscow.
On August 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenka on his birthday during a phone call a day earlier. The two leaders have spoken by phone several times since the protests began.
Both sides reaffirmed their intention to strengthen and expand their neighborly alliance, according to the Kremlin readout of the call.