Belarus jails two opposition leaders; teachers head rally of thousands

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus jailed two opposition leaders for 10 days on Tuesday as the government pursued a crackdown on the few figures still at large, while schoolteachers led a new protest of thousands against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Despite most major opposition figures being in jail or exile, Lukashenko has so far failed to put down protests against his 26-year-old rule, more than two weeks after an election his opponents say was rigged.

Olga Kovalkova and Siarhei Dyleuski were brought to separate courts where they were each jailed for 10 days. Kovalkova is the main representative still in Belarus of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Dyleuski has led strikes at Minsk’s flagship tractor factory.

Both are senior figures in an opposition Coordination Council, set up last week with the self-described aim of negotiating with the authorities. They were arrested on Monday.

Lukashenko has accused the new council of attempting to seize power, and prosecutors have launched a criminal case.

In the latest protest, thousands gathered at the ministry of education to demonstrate against a threat by Lukashenko to fire schoolteachers who do not support his government. Rallies have typically attracted thousands during the week, swelling to tens of thousands on weekends.

“I have come so that teachers are not afraid, so that their voice can be heard, so that they can work even if they have a different view from the authorities,” said a literature teacher who gave her name as Svetlana.

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Lukashenko has denied election cheating. He has called the protesters “rats” and says they are funded from abroad.

His posturing has grown steadily more confrontational: in recent days he has been pictured on state television with a Kalashnikov rifle and tactical vest. Yet so far, a long-standing threat of a decisive police operation to clear the streets has yet to materialise.

Another opposition council member, Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and head of the main state drama theatre, was questioned by investigators on Tuesday but not arrested. He emerged saying he would go back to work and the council’s activities were not illegal.

The council includes dozens of figures representing broad swathes of society. Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich has been summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

“The intimidation will not work. We will not relent,” candidate Tsikhanouskaya said in a video link with the European Parliament. “We demand all political prisoners freed. We demand to stop the violence and intimidation by the authorities.”

The Belarus Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Tsikhanouskaya’s appeal to annul the election results.

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Tsikhanouskaya, 37, fled to Lithuania after the election her supporters say she won. A political novice, she emerged as the consensus opposition candidate after better-known figures were barred from standing, including her jailed activist husband.

Belarus is the closest ally to Russia of all former Soviet republics, and Lukashenko’s fate is widely seen as in the hands of the Kremlin, which must decide whether to stick with him as his authority has ebbed.

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Despite being seen in Moscow as a truculent and erratic ally, Lukashenko still seems to have the backing of Russia which sent journalists to staff Belarus state TV after employees quit in protest against what they described as orders to broadcast propaganda.

On Tuesday, Russia said that during talks between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, it had stressed there should be no attempt by the United States and European Union to “pressure” Belarus, including via sanctions.

Biegun was in Moscow after meeting Tsikhanouskaya on Monday in Lithuania.

The West has had to balance its sympathy for a nascent Belarusian pro-democracy movement with its concern that strong support would trigger a Russian-backed crackdown.

Meanwhile the crisis is threatening the finances of a country as foreign currency reserves shrink and the currency weakens. The Belarusian rouble is at a record low against the euro and is approaching an all-time trough versus the dollar as Belarusians queue at exchange points to buy hard currency.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Reuters Moscow office; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean