MINSK -- Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich has said she thinks the crisis in Belarus could be resolved with assistance from the international community and help from Russia, as protests challenging the results of this month's presidential election continued for an 18th day.
Alexievich is one of dozens of public figures who formed the opposition Coordination Council last week in the aftermath of the country's disputed August 9 presidential election.
Her remarks on August 26 came as she arrived at the Investigative Committee's headquarters in Minsk, where she was summoned for questioning as part of a widening clampdown on opposition calls for the resignation of the country's longtime authoritarian ruler, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The 65-year-old Belarusian leader, who has ruled the country since 1994, has shown his determination to stay in power despite more than two weeks of demonstrations and strikes at industrial plants that have posed the greatest challenge yet to his 26-year rule.
The electoral results and postelection crackdown are facing growing Western condemnation, with European Union foreign ministers expected to agree sanctions this week on Belarusian officials.
Neighboring Russia, a historical ally that wields some influence over Minsk through financial and political levers, has warned the EU and the United States against interfering in Belarusian affairs
"Any attempt to interfere in the internal affairs [of Belarus] and to put pressure on its authorities would be counterproductive," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on August 26 during a call with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, according to a Kremlin statement.
Alexievich told journalists that the Belarusians "need assistance from the world and, probably, from Russia in order to overcome this crisis."
She adding that she expected a peaceful resolution of the crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people demonstrate regularly against the official results of the August 9 poll that gave Lukashenka a new six-year term.
"In my opinion, there will definitely be a long period of political reshuffling. Perhaps the world will help us, so that Lukashenka starts talking to us. For now, he's only talking to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, so, perhaps, Putin will help us," Alexievich said.
She emerged from the Investigative Committee building after a short time and said she had refused to answer investigators' questions, invoking her right not to testify against herself.
"The more we stay together, the stronger we will be, and the greater chance we will have of making the authorities talk to us," she said, adding that there was no basis for the investigation.
Alexievich, who has been critical of the government, is not known to have taken part in any of the Coordination Council’s public meetings.
The 72-year-old author reportedly rarely leaves her home due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities in Belarus have stepped up pressure on prominent protest organizers and members of the Coordination Council, which the chairman of Belarus's Constitutional Court on August 25 called unconstitutional.
Last week, a criminal case was launched against the council, set up with the stated aim of opening negotiations with the government to pave the way for a transfer of power. Lukashenka has called it an illegal attempt to seize power.
Alyaksandr Lavrinovich, the head of the strike-organizing committee at the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant, was handed a 10-day jail sentence on August 26 on charges of organizing an unsanctioned protest.
Earlier this week, two members of the Coordination Council presidium were jailed for 10 days on similar charges. One of them, Syarhey Dyleuski, was also a strike organizer.
On August 26, riot police dispersed protesters who had gathered in Minsk's central Independence Square, and detained at least 14 of them, according to the human rights center Vyasna.
While police moved to disperse the demonstration, officers blocked the doors of the nearby Church of Sts. Simon and Helen, where several dozen protesters had found refuge.
Journalists were said to be among them.
Minsk Bishop Yury Kasabutski condemned the police action as a violation of freedom of conscience and religion and an insult to believers. Detentions were also reported in another area of Minsk and in the western city of Brest.
In the capital, residents also formed long lines in several parts of the capital to sign a petition demanding the resignation of lawmakers in a parliament outwardly loyal to Lukashenka.
Also on August 26, a spokesman for the state Janka Kupala National Academic Theater said dozens of staff had resigned in a show of solidarity after its director, Paval Latushka, who is also a member of the Coordination Council, was fired.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly told visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on August 25 that there were many questions in Belarus over the legitimacy of the way the Coordination Council was formed.
Despite the crackdown, the exiled challenger in the presidential election vowed on August 25 that the country's pro-democracy movement "will not be broken."
"Belarusians have shown over the past two weeks that they will not give up" despite repression, intimidation by physical force, and threats of imprisonment, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee via video link.
She was speaking from Lithuania, where she fled following the vote amid reports that she and her family had been threatened by authorities in Minsk.
The EU and the United States have dismissed the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair and urged the country’s authorities to engage in dialogue with Tsikhanouskaya's team.
EU officials say the bloc's foreign ministers will look to target "between 15 and 20" Belarusian regime figures with asset freezes and travel bans over their involvement in falsifying the election and cracking down on protesters when they meet in Berlin for two days of informal talks starting on August 27.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on August 26 slammed the Belarusian authorities for their "severe human rights violations and violations of basic democratic principles," adding that these violations would "not go unanswered."
Maas, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said it was "absolutely unacceptable" that members of the Coordinating Council had been "imprisoned, interrogated, and intimidated."
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda deplored the "deteriorating" situation in regard to the postelection crackdown in Belarus.
"It appears that the more afraid the regime is, the more inappropriately it reacts to the situation, and the more brutally it treats its own people," Nauseda said.
Latvia's government said that it would make 150,000 euros ($177,000) available to support civil society and independent media in Belarus.
And leaders of the Council of Europe said Belarusian authorities should "urgently initiate a broad-based and inclusive national dialogue, fully involving civil society, to ensure a peaceful way out of the current crisis and opening the door for necessary reforms benefiting all Belarusian citizens."
Meanwhile, Lukashenka has ordered the military into full combat readiness, claiming that Belarus is facing a potential invasion and raising the prospect that the army may unleash a much-feared bloody crackdown to suppress the unprecedented wave of street protests across the country.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on August 26 that any attempt by the Belarusian government to use the Western alliance as a scapegoat and crack down on protests was "wrong and unjustified."
Speaking in Berlin before a meeting of EU defense ministers, he also called for free and fair elections in Belarus.
"There is no military NATO buildup in the region, so any attempt by the regime in Belarus to use NATO as an excuse or a pretext to crack down on demonstrators in their own country is absolutely wrong and absolutely unjustified," Stoltenberg told reporters.