MINSK -- Belarusian prosecutors on August 20 opened a criminal investigation into the founders of an opposition council set up to negotiate the transition of power amid huge protests challenging the "rigged" results of a presidential election earlier this month that gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a fresh six-year term.
The council formed by opposition leaders who claim the result of the poll was falsified has been insisting new presidential elections must be held as protests in Minsk entered a 12th day despite a new push by the authoritarian to clear the streets.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Still, the 65-year-old leader, who has been in power since 1994, has reiterated he won’t resign or call a new vote while under pressure from protesters, and on August 19 escalated tensions by instructing authorities to bring criminal charges against opposition leaders and calling on his security services to get tougher on demonstrators, in an indication that a renewed crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators was in the works.
Maryya Kalesnikava, one of opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s top aides, said on August 20 that despite "flagrant falsifications" in the August 9 ballot that gave Lukashenka a landslide victory, the incumbent has "the right to participate" in a fresh election, though "we do not believe Lukashenka will do that."
A 37-year-old political novice, Tsikhanouskaya ran after other potential candidates, including her husband, were jailed or exiled prior to the election during an opposition crackdown.
"The term of the incumbent Belarusian president expires only on November 5. After that, we intend to hold an election in strict compliance with international standards and to invite international observers. However, the CEC [Central Election Commission] composition must be completely renewed, and the head of the CEC must be replaced," Kalesnikava said.
Lukashenka has faced the biggest domestic challenge to his 26-year rule since the election, which the European Union has said it does not recognize because of irregularities that ended up giving the strongman just over 80 percent of the vote.
Official results gave Tsikhanouskaya about 10 percent of the vote, but she claims to have actually received between 60 and 70 percent.
Thousands have since taken to the streets and walked off the job at state-controlled factories, even heckling the man sometimes referred to as "Europe's last dictator."
Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighboring Lithuania last week, from where she has called for the protests to continue peacefully.
The Coordination Council says numerous election-law violations were recorded in the vote, and more than 7,000 people have been detained and arrested for political reasons.
The council consists of top associaties of Tsikhanouskaya, as well as rights activists and representatives of striking workers and includes the nation’s most famous author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.
It met for the first time on August 18, saying it represents the people and seeks to negotiate a peaceful transition of power.
Volha Kovalkova, an aide to Tsikhanouskaya, says she expects her to soon return to Minsk from Lithuania to act as a guarantor in a negotiated transition of power.
Protests continued on August 20 in Minsk and other Belarusian cities for the 12th straight day.
On August 19, hundreds of protesters defied the security forces and assembled in front of the Interior Ministry, which runs the police. A large number of officers were stationed there with vans, but they took no action.
Demonstrators chanted "Resign!" and "Let them out!" in reference to those still detained, while passing cars honked their horns in the rain.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on August 20 that the United States remains deeply concerned by "serious flaws" in Belarus's election, adding that Washington was in support of international efforts to independently look into the country's electoral irregularities and human rights abuses surrounding the vote.
“We remain deeply concerned by serious flaws in the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and strongly condemn the violence carried out against peaceful protesters and journalists, the arrest of opposition candidates and peaceful protesters, the blockage of Belarus’ internet service, and the abuse of detainees, “Pompeo said in a statement released on August 20.
“We urge the Belarusian government to actively engage Belarusian society, including through the newly established National Coordination Council, in a way that reflects what the Belarusian people are demanding, for the sake of Belarus’ future, and for a successful Belarus,” he added.
The European Union has said it does not recognize the result of the Belarus election and will soon impose sanctions on Lukashenka's government.
On August 20, EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted that he held another phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is Lukashenka's closest ally, and told him that the only solution to the Belarus crisis is "political inclusive dialogue & a peaceful and democratic process."
"Yesterday, EU expressed solidarity with the people of Belarus in their desire to determine their own future. Today I reiterated this to President Putin. There is only one way forward: through political inclusive dialogue & a peaceful and democratic process," Michel tweeted.
The Kremlin, however, insisted that direct talks between foreign entities and the Belarusian opposition would amount to "interference in Belarusian internal affairs."
"We believe that dialogue should be primarily conducted inside Belarus. Because if foreign countries, among them Russia, establish dialogue with the opposition, that would be an act of interference in internal affairs," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on August 20.
Peskov also said that Putin and Lukashenka have held four phone calls "of late."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP