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Belarus Opposition Leader Renews Battle Against Lukashenka


Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks in Vilnius on March 18.
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks in Vilnius on March 18.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has made good on promises to reignite the effort to topple Alyaksandr Lukashenka, calling for renewed protests over a disputed presidential election, announcing a nationwide online vote on possible mediated negotiations to end the crisis, and more sanctions from the United States to pressure the authorities.

In a video statement released on March 18, Tsikhanouskaya called on Belarusians to initiate a "second wave of protests" next week against Lukashenka, the authoritarian leader who was declared president for a sixth-straight term despite the opposition's belief that Tsikhanouskaya was the rightful winner.

Tsikhanouskaya also said that the online vote, launched on March 18, would encourage the international community to act as mediators in the crisis, which erupted after peaceful protests were met with brute force by the authorities.

"We launch this voting to start talks with representatives of [Lukashenka's] regime who are ready to think about the future and make mature decisions instead of prolonging the crisis until a full catastrophe. And there are such people," Tsikhanouskaya, who is currently in Lithuania where she relocated for security reasons after she was detained while attempting to register a complaint with elections officials, said in the video.

Participation in the online vote, she said, would "help get decisive steps" from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The independent platform Golos, which launched in Belarus last year to monitor the disputed presidential election, is overseeing the online vote. Golos announced that more than 200,000 people had voted already for talks between the authorities and the opposition.

Mobilization Efforts

Political scientist Pyotr Rudkouski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the online initiative appeared intended to mobilize Belarusian society and to affect the decision-making of international partners.

Calling herself "the leader elected by the Belarusian people," Tsikhanouskaya also set March 25 as the date for the start of renewed pro-democracy protests against Lukashenka. The day marks the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.

Tsikhanouskaya has recently acknowledged that cold weather and the harsh government crackdown against protesters had taken some momentum from the movement to oust Lukashenka. But she promised renewed efforts come spring and has reached out to countries around the globe -- she recently went on a three-country tour of Europe -- in an effort to boost support.

Addressing the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee by videoconference on March 17, Tsikhanouskaya called on the United States to put more pressure on Lukashenka by expanding sanctions.

Tsikhanouskaya said the additional sanctions should target judges, state-owned enterprises, security officers, oligarchs, and educational and sports officials.

"You have to put sanctions on those…'wallets' of Lukashenka that support the regime," Tsikhanouskaya said.

This includes oil and gas enterprises, she said, urging the U.S. Congress to "strike at the regime's most important benefactors and primary sources of resilience."

According to Tsikhanouskaya, 32,000 people have been detained, 2,500 criminal cases have been initiated, 1,000 cases of torture have been documented by human rights NGOs, and 290 people are currently being held as political prisoners. At least eight protesters have been killed, she said, and no government officials have been held accountable for any of the violence.

Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has resisted international calls to step down and refuses to negotiate with the opposition. Tsikhanouskaya has described his recent public threat to use the army against protesters "an act of fear and despair."

Seeking 'Genuine Dialogue'

Tsikhanouskaya, 38, ran after her husband was jailed while trying to mount his own campaign and attracted a wide following, while most Western countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as president.

Many governments have imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and senior Belarusian officials over the election process and the ensuing crackdown on protesters. In February, the U.S. State Department imposed visa restrictions targeting Belarus's justice sector, law enforcement leaders, and officers in the country's security forces.

Tsikhanouskaya, however, told U.S. lawmakers that the efforts to date have not been enough to oust the long-serving Belarusian leader.

"Lukashenka still has the resources to retain power," Tsikhanouskaya said. "So, the United States should insist on stopping the violence, releasing the political prisoners, restoring the rule of law, and launching a genuine dialogue between the legitimate representatives of Belarusians and the regime."

The people of Belarus need the help immediately "because people are suffering now in this very moment in jails and on the ground," she said. "This is urgent help."

She urged Congress to increase sanctions on judges, in particular, because this will cause them to "think twice before making a judgment against a peaceful demonstration."

With reporting by AP and the BBC
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