The opposition in Belarus has launched a coordinating council to organize a transfer of power, a move embattled President Alyaksandr Lukashenka described as an attempt to seize power following a controversial election and brutal crackdown on his opponents.
The opposition council composed of civil society members met on August 18, saying it represents the people and is seeking to negotiate a peaceful transition of power "without political goals or a program."
"[The opposition] want to toss us aside and demand to hand over power, no less. Thus, we view this unambiguously: This is an attempt at a coup, with all ensuing consequences," Lukashenka said during his meeting with the Belarusian Security Council.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition presidential candidate who claims to have won the August 9 election, said in an online video that she was prepared to temporarily take over the leadership.
"I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down and enter the normal rhythm," Tsikhanouskaya said in the video.
The 37-year-old political novice, who ran after other potential candidates, including her husband, were jailed or exiled, also said security and law enforcement officers would be forgiven if they abandoned Lukashenka's government. She left Belarus for Lithuania after the election amid reports that she and her family were threatened by authorities.
Volha Kovalkova, Tsikhanouskaya's representative, said at a press conference establishing the coordinating council that she expected the exiled opposition figure would soon return to Minsk, to act as a guarantor in a negotiated transition of power.
"We are operating solely through legal means," Kovalkova said. "The situation is critical. The authorities have no choice but to come to dialogue. The situation will only get worse."
Official results from an August 9 election gave Lukashenka just over 80 percent of the vote, a figure that immediately prompted allegations of vote-rigging.
Tsikhanouskaya, who drew tens of thousands of people to her campaign rallies, claims to have actually received between 60 and 70 percent of the vote.
The scale of the domestic and international backlash appears to have caught Lukashenka off guard as he finds himself in the precarious position of facing international isolation and sustained street and industrial protests.
Nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured, and at least two people died in a crackdown on protesters. Some of those who have been released since have complained of beatings and terrible conditions while in detention.
The repression only emboldened the opposition as employees at several state-controlled companies have left their factories to join thousands in the streets demanding Lukashenka step down.
Workers at a major potash mining facility, Belruskali, were the latest to go on strike, and union leaders told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that operations at six facilities had been halted. Belarus supplies almost one-fifth of the world's potash, a key fertilizer for farmers around the globe.
The election rigging and brutal crackdown on protesters has led to small but significant fractures in the regime, with the Belarusian ambassadors to Spain and Slovakia coming out in support of protesters’ demands and employees from state media resigning. There have also been scattered reports of police and security officials resigning.
On the international stage, diplomacy is intensifying over the crisis.
Ahead of an EU emergency meeting on the situation on August 19, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke separately by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has close economic and military ties with Belarus.
According to her press service, Merkel told Putin on August 18 that the Belarusian authorities should refrain from violence against peaceful demonstrators and release political prisoners. She also said Lukashenka should hold talks with opposition groups.
“The Russian side emphasized that any outside attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, which would lead to a further escalation of the crisis, was unacceptable,” the Kremlin said in its readout of the call. “The hope is for an early normalization of the situation was expressed.”
European Council President Charles Michel also held a phone call with Putin, during which he expressed concern about election irregularities and violence against protesters. The two discussed the best way to encourage intra-Belarusian dialogue for a peaceful end to the crisis, a European diplomat told RFE/RL.
In Lithuania, one of the EU members taking the lead as events unfold in its neighbor, the country’s parliament voted on August 18 to impose unspecified sanctions on Belarus and called for the international rejection of the legitimacy of Lukashenka.
The EU is already preparing a raft of sanctions on Belarus officials responsible for vote-rigging and violence.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would talk to Russia "at the appropriate time" in the wake of protests, adding that "It doesn't seem like it's too much democracy there in Belarus."