MINSK – Belarusian security forces violently dispersed protests in Minsk and other cities after early results from the country’s presidential election gave incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a commanding lead.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate who drew tens of thousands of people to her rallies during the campaign, refused to recognize the unofficial result after polls closed in the August 9 vote.
The Belarusian Central Election Commission announced preliminary results on August 10, saying Lukashenka got 80.23 percent of the vote, while Tsikhanouskaya received 9.9 percent.
Thousands of her supporters took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction and were eventually dispersed by police dressed in riot gear who used rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas.
The total number of protesters in Minsk was difficult to estimate because they were scattered throughout the city, RFE/RL’s Belarus Service said.
In violent scenes posted on Twitter by the independent news outlet Tut.by, police officers were seen beating protesters with truncheons. People can be heard shouting, “This is our country!” as drivers flashed their car lights and honked their horns.
After breaking up the big crowds, police chased smaller groups of protesters through downtown Minsk for several hours, the Associated Press reported.
In Brest, where law enforcement officers used tear gas and stun grenades, protesters gradually dispersed to a crowd of 200-300 from an estimated total of 5,000, according to Novaya gazeta.
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights group said 126 people were detained across the country, including 55 in Minsk. Vyasna also said two of the detainees were injured. Among the people detained were 16 journalists and 40 observers, it said.
State news agency Belta said early on August 10 that police had taken control of the situation "at unsanctioned mass events," citing the Interior Ministry.
In an appeal read live over the phone on Current Time by her associate, Maryya Kalesnikava, Tsikhanouskaya called on both the security forces and Belarusian citizens to refrain from violence.
"I ask everyone who is now making decisions, and above all the commanders of special forces: Do not use force against civilians," she said.
"I ask the police and the troops to remember that they are part of the people. Once again, I ask the voters: no provocation, no need to give a reason to use violence against you.
"Please stop the violence.... Officers, I know you can do this."
Early on August 10, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the unauthorized rallies were "not over yet," so she could not count the detainees.
“What has happened is awful,” Tsikhanouskaya told a news conference, saying she did not recognize the results of the exit poll.
"I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us," Tsikhanouskaya said from her headquarters.
Throughout election day, police and soldiers were transported into Minsk, where they cordoned off the city and took positions at strategic sites in anticipation of unrest. Public transportation was also limited in Minsk in an apparent attempt by authorities to prevent protests, and there was almost no access to social-media networks from early in the day.
Internet freedom monitor NetBlocks reported Internet connectivity had been disrupted across the country since early morning. The disruption affected access to the Internet and social-media platforms -- with Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber all experiencing disruptions. Two grassroots election-monitoring websites also were inaccessible.
Earlier in the day, voters formed long lines at polling booths across the Eastern European country and at embassies abroad.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that many people lining up at the polls wore white bracelets signaling support for the opposition. Social-media users also posted pictures of voters wearing white bracelets lining up at Belarusian embassies, including in Moscow, Berlin, and London.
According to an exit poll conducted at 21 Belarusian diplomatic posts, Tsikhanouskaya garnered 81.5 percent of the vote compared to about 6 percent for Lukashenka.
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Several voters told RFE/RL that they had never taken part in an election in the country before but had turned out to cast a ballot on August 9 because they want and expect change.
Tsikhanouskaya -- who had told her supporters to wear the bracelets as a symbol of "honesty and purity" -- had earlier cast her ballot and demanded election results free of fraud.
"I really want the election to be honest, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if all the people are for [Lukashenka], then we will agree with [the results]," Tsikhanouskaya said.
Tsikhanouskaya, who has teamed up with two prominent women from the campaigns of rejected presidential candidates, has drawn huge rallies with a simple electoral promise to free all political prisoners and rerun a free and fair election.
"It's a clear sign that people want change. People have woken up. They no longer want to live in fear and humiliation. They want to feel that they are citizens of their country. It's inspiring. I realize there are people behind me, around me, and ahead of me," Tsikhanouskaya said in a recent interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Now that the election is over, there is mounting concern that an embattled Lukashenka will follow through on threats to use force on any postelection dissent.
The election follows a campaign marked by the arrest of more than 1,000 opposition supporters, the barring of several potential challengers, claims of a Russian plot to sow instability, and the rise of an unheralded candidate in the form of the 37-year-old Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenka said after casting his vote in Minsk that neither he nor the government will allow Belarus to slip into "chaos" or "civil war" after the results of the election are announced.
Lukashenka also said that security officials in the country are considering "various options" over the possibility of unrest over the results.
Four challengers were on the ballot, but attention focused on Tsikhanouskaya, who was a last-minute replacement after husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular vlogger who urged Belarusians to squash the "cockroach" Lukashenka with their slippers, was barred from running following his controversial arrest in late May.
The election comes with Lukashenka's popularity apparently waning under a slumping economy and the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote also comes as relations between Belarus and traditional ally Russia have worsened since December 2019 when Lukashenka pulled out at the last moment from plans for deeper integration with Russia under their 1999 Union Treaty. Since then, Moscow has limited energy supplies to Minsk, which is dependent on discounted Russian gas and oil to run its inefficient, largely state-dominated economy.
As in the past when relations with Russia soured, Lukashenka has fostered closer ties with both the United States and Europe in recent years. But that rapprochement could be undermined by a crackdown on the opposition and potential massive electoral fraud.
Lukashenka has suggested those opposed to him are "puppets" controlled by foreign masters bent on bringing instability to the country. In an address to parliament on August 4, he played up fears of a "color revolution" backed by Moscow and hostile powers in the West.
"They've decided to try out new forms of color revolution against us," he said, a term that normally refers to earlier uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. "It won't work."
Belarus announced on July 29 that 33 members of the Russian private military contractor Vagner had been detained near Minsk and accused them of a vague plot to incite "instability" around the vote. Belarusian officials also linked some opposition leaders, including Tsikhanouskaya's husband, of unspecified links with the mercenaries.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced in July that it would not send observers because they had not received a formal invitation. It is the first time the OSCE is not monitoring a nationwide vote in Belarus since 2001.
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Russian-led grouping of former Soviet republics, had observers at the polls. In the past, CIS observers have largely approved votes in Belarus, unlike Western and international observers who have never deemed any election under Lukashenka as free or fair.
Belarus has more than 48,000 of its own monitors but most are from state-run or state-controlled bodies.
But a few dozen independent observers, including 47 from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, were allowed to monitor polling stations. An opposition initiative called Honest People also fielded vote monitors.
Meanwhile, the Voice platform, which called on voters to send photos of completed ballots for the presidential election, had counted over 1 million registered users who promised to help keep track of the vote. However, with the Internet disrupted it is unclear how the platform functioned.