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After Huge Minsk Opposition Rally, Has Lukashenka Run Out Of Political Options?

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka wipes his face as he addresses supporters on Independent Square in Minsk on August 16.
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka wipes his face as he addresses supporters on Independent Square in Minsk on August 16.

The contrast between the images couldn't have been starker.

More than 200,000 people flooded central Minsk on August 16 in the biggest outpouring of opposition yet to Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka following his disputed reelection for a sixth term on August 9.

Hours earlier in the Belarusian capital, Lukashenka, in power since 1994, attracted a gathering a fraction of the size, with many in attendance reported to be state workers who were told either show up or find another job.

Massive Crowds In Minsk Demand President Lukashenka Resign
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As labor strikes widen amid other protests, analysts say Lukashenka is running out of options to defuse the crisis and could resort to even more forceful measures, possibly emboldened by vague promises of support from longtime ally Russia.

"Lukashenka is not going to make concessions at this stage," explained Arsen Sivitski, director of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies. "And probably will try to manage the crisis by force, introducing a state of emergency or even martial law."

Already, some 7,000 people have been detained by police across Belarus in the postelection crackdown, with hundreds injured and at least two killed as police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, and, in at least one instance, live ammunition. Hundreds of those held and subsequently released spoke of brutal beatings they suffered in detention, much of it documented and splashed across social media. Thousands remain in custody.

During a visit to a factory in Minsk on August 17, Lukashenka made vague offers to share power and tinker with the constitution, but struck a defiant, almost belligerent tone to a skeptical audience.

"You will not live to see the day I do anything under pressure," Lukashenka told the workers, some of whom shouted "Step down!" and "Leave!"

'Lie!' 'Leave!': Belarusian Factory Workers Taunt Lukashenka During Speech
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Lukashenka added that there will be no new election "until you kill me."

Lukashenka also said Belarus would "die as a state" if a rerun of the election were to take place, flatly rejecting the opposition's primary political demand.

Later in the day, however, he speculated that new parliamentary and presidential elections could be held if a new constitution were adopted by a national referendum.

The opposition has not been calling for a new constitution.

Lukashenka's visit to the factory comes after some of the country's biggest state-run industrial plants were hit by protests and walkouts last week. More strike actions, including by state television employees, are planned for this week, further eroding Lukashenka's support.

Opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya -- who left for Lithuania most likely under pressure from the authorities, who are holding her husband in custody -- appears to be growing bolder as Lukashenka's support appears to slip. In a fresh video message on August 17, the 37-year-old Tsikhanouskaya declared she was ready to become a "national leader" in order to restore calm, free political prisoners, and prepare for a new election.

Tsikhanouskaya, who reluctantly entered the race after her husband, a popular vlogger, was barred from running, has said that where votes were properly counted, she won 60 to 70 percent of the vote, rather than the 10 percent she was allocated by the official vote tally.

She's already said she was initiating the creation of a "Coordination Council" for a potential transition of power and called on the international community to help mediate.

Whether Lukashenka would be willing to talk to Tsikhanouskaya or her surrogates appears doubtful. In his address to supporters in Minsk on August 16, Lukashenka said the opposition would "crawl like rats out of a hole" if they were not suppressed this time.

"You came here so that for the first time in a quarter-century you could defend your country, your independence, your wives, sisters, and children," he said.

Lukashenka also claimed a NATO buildup of forces on Belarus's western borders, something immediately rejected by the military alliance.

Now Looking East?

As he faces growing pressure, Lukashenka, who just weeks ago accused Russia of sending mercenaries to Belarus to stir up trouble, is turning to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.

The two spoke by phone on August 15 and 16, and after the second call the Kremlin said Russia was ready to assist Belarus in line with a military pact that both countries have signed if need be. It was not clear what form such aid would take.

On August 17, Belarus started military exercises near the Astravets nuclear power plant, close to the border with Lithuania, which has protested the construction of the Russian-designed atomic station.

Besides providing Tsikhanouskaya with refuge, Vilnius, whose historical ties to Belarus date back centuries when both were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, has been among the loudest critics of the Belarusian vote and subsequent crackdown.

According to Interfax, which cited the Belarusian Defense Ministry, the exercises, involving artillery and missile divisions, will last from August 17 to 20.

More ominously, photos and videos uploaded to social media suggested that unmarked Russian military vehicles could be moving in the direction of Belarus.

Writing on Twitter, Julian Ropcke, a journalist and conflict analyst, said, "The Putin regime is gearing up efforts to intervene in its neighboring country."

None of these reports has been independently confirmed. Before seizing control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russian forces without insignias or other markings were deployed at strategic sites. Although Putin initially denied it, he later acknowledged their presence.

'This Is The End'

As pressure to step down grows, many analysts predict Lukashenka will take even more repressive measures to maintain his grip on power.

Seviaryn Kviatkouski, a Belarusian analyst, said no one could have predicted the course events have taken in Belarus. "I not only watch, but I visit the city center often," he told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "And I want to say that, of course, no one, least of all the authorities, could have predicted what has happened."

"You have to understand that the people won't give in. This is it; this is the end. You are now watching the end of the Lukashenka regime," Kviatkouski predicted. "I am only afraid of one thing -- that perhaps he can still give the order for some executions, for some terrible things."

Sivitski of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies said Lukashenka's position is eroding as the protests grow, especially with the growing number of workers joining strike actions. "The protest agenda has already transformed significantly," he told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

"A few days ago the main motivation behind the protests was injustice and the bloody brutality of the security apparatus. Now it has clear political goals: demand for Lukashenka's resignation and new presidential elections."

What happens next could largely depend on what the so-called "siloviki" -- police, army, and other security forces -- do. Some have already resigned, with several posting videos on social media showing then trashing their uniforms.

"I say it again: it depends on the security forces," Kviatkouski explained. "That is, how much will they drag out this drama? Either they will go over to the side of the people, or they will simply become neutral, or they will nevertheless start some kind of mass repression with executions, or other horrors."

In any event, the postelection protest movement has changed Belarus, whether Lukashenka is able to remain in office or not, wrote Lizaveta Merliak, the international secretary of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union, in a commentary. "If Lukashenka is able to hold on to power, he will be compelled to turn to an even more repressive rule, as millions of dissidents need to be forced into obedience," Merliak wrote.

"In the summer of 2020 the whole world, not without some surprise, is seeing a new country on the map of Europe," she said. "Not a Belarus asleep with apathy, but a Belarus whose people are seized by determination to win freedom and democracy."

RFE/RL's Belarus and Russian services and Current Time contributed to this report
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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