KENTFIELD, Calif. — Mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have led security forces to harass citizens since his election in August to a sixth term, a result considered rigged by the U.S. and European  allies. 

Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko for the past 26 years, has seen hundreds of thousands of protesters flood the streets since the voting. More than 100,000 protested in the capital city Minsk Sunday against the president’s dictatorial leadership.

“The source of power in Belarus is the people, not Lukashenko and the Kremlin,” read signs held by protesters, The Associated Press reported. 

Demands include Lukashenko’s resignation and the release of political prisoners. More than 7,000 people had been arrested since the election, NPR reported last month.

Alena Leuchanka, a 37-year-old former Olympic and professional basketball player, was jailed Sept. 30 for 15 days after participating in protests, Radio Free Europe’s Belarus Service reported earlier this month.

Many have been beaten and abducted, such as a 21-year-old student in Minsk who was tackled by authorities while staring at his phone, then dragged into an unmarked Volkswagen van last month, as seen in a video posted by Tut.By, an independent Belarusian news service. The unidentified student suffered a moderate cerebral hemorrhage, a broken nose and multiple bruises, he told the Vesna Human Rights Center.

“They beat me in the leg, in the face, on the head, and on the back,” he told Vesna. “I didn’t feel it because of the pain and shock.” 

At least eight members of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s campaign were jailed shortly before the voting in August, according to media reports.

Tikhanovskaya is a 38-year-old mother of two who replaced her husband as a candidate after he was arrested for trying to get on the ballot. After the election, security forces coerced her into encouraging her supporters to stop protesting, she told BuzzFeed News. She then fled to Lithuania.

Tikhanovskaya was more popular than incumbent Lukashenko, according to a poll conducted by Russian newspaper Kommersant shortly before the election. Slightly more than 25% of respondents supported Tikhanovskaya while somewhat fewer than 23% supported Lukashenko, according to the Kommersant survey of more than 8,100 people.

Post-election results from the government however showed that Lukashenko had received nearly 80% of the vote while Tikhanovskaya received approximately 10%.   

Those results were disputed by the EU and U.S., among other countries. 

“The 9 August elections were neither free nor fair,” the European Council said in a report 10 days after the voting.

Lukashenko’s hold on power is not as entrenched as he might hope, according to one expert on Belarus.

“Unless there would be escalation towards deadly violence by the government or the opposition … the protests are likely to dwindle,” said Ivan Katchanovski, professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.

“Lukashenko is unlikely to remain in power indefinitely,” Katchanovski wrote in an email. “There is a possibility that he would be either forced to leave his presidency and Belarus or that he would try to pass power to his hand-picked successor.”

Tikhanovskaya met with French President Emmanuel Macron in late September, then with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday to discuss issues including political prisoners and new elections.

“We want Germany, as one of the most powerful countries in the world, to help in negotiations,” Tikhanovskaya said in Berlin earlier this week. “Anyone willing to act as a mediator can help us.”

Lukashenko told Russian journalists last month that he will not resign and that the opposition would destroy Belarus. He said that he “may have sat in the president’s chair a little too long,” but didn’t want what he “created with the people … destroyed.”  

(Written and reported by Gabe Fisher; Oct. 8, 2020)

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