MINSK/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Hundreds of Belarusian protesters gathered in Minsk on Wednesday evening, defying a new order from President Alexander Lukashenko to his police to clear the streets of the capital after a week and a half of rallies against his rule.
Holding an emergency summit on the crisis, the European Union rejected Lukashenko’s re-election in a disputed vote on Aug. 9 and announced financial sanctions against officials the bloc blames for election fraud and the abuse of protesters.
“This is about the Belarusian people and their legitimate right to determine the future path of their country,” said the head of the EU’s executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Her comment was echoed by Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“The brave citizens of Belarus are showing their voices will not be silenced by terror or torture,” he tweeted, adding that Russia, Belarus’s giant neighbour, should not interfere.
“This is not about geopolitics but the right to choose one’s leaders.”
Lukashenko, a gruff former collective farm boss facing the biggest crisis of his 26 year rule, has blamed foreign countries for stirring unrest and funding protesters. At least two protesters have died and thousands have been jailed, many emerging to complain of beatings and abuse.
“There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind,” Lukashenko said in remarks reported by state news agency Belta, announcing the new police crackdown in the capital. “People are tired. People demand peace and quiet.”
By early Wednesday evening, there was no sign of a major new operation to clear demonstrators from the streets. Hundreds of protesters 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.
People chanted “Resign!” and “Let them out!” while passing cars honked their horns in the rain.
“Of course, as a girl I am afraid,” a protester who gave her name as Yulia, 28, said of demonstrating in front of the police. “I am afraid every time. But I am even more afraid that nothing will change. So we are afraid, but we come out.”
Mikhail, 38, said the demonstrators had picked the spot because the Interior Ministry “took part in terrible crimes. We won’t stop because it is impossible to live like this any more”.
Earlier, police dispersed a demonstration and detained two people at the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) plant. Police also took control of the main state drama theatre in Minsk, a flashpoint for protests since its director was fired for speaking out against the mistreatment of demonstrators.
Lukashenko ordered border controls tightened to prevent an influx of “fighters and arms”, and intelligence agencies to search for organisers of demonstrations.
The EU wants to avoid a repeat of violence in neighbouring Ukraine, where a pro-Moscow leader was ousted in a popular uprising six years ago, triggering a Russian military intervention and Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict.
“Belarus must find its own path, that must happen via dialogue in the country and there must be no intervention from outside,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ruling out any role for herself as a mediator in the crisis, Merkel said she had tried to phone Lukashenko, but “he refused to talk to me, which I regret”.
“BELARUS IS NOT EUROPE”
Russia has consistently warned the West against meddling in Belarus, which has the closest economic, cultural and political ties to Moscow of all the former Soviet republics and is central to Russia’s European defence strategy.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused unidentified foreign powers of interfering, which he called unacceptable.
EU officials say the situation differs from Ukraine in 2014, not least because the Belarus opposition does not seek to loosen ties with Russia, only to get rid of Lukashenko.
“Belarus is not Europe,” EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton said, comparing it to pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia, both targets of Russian military operations. “Belarus is really strongly connected with Russia and the majority of the population is favourable to close links with Russia.”
But some European officials, especially in countries close to Belarus, have called for a firmer line to back the opposition and push back if Moscow supports any move to crush it.
The Kremlin faces the choice of sticking with Lukashenko to see if he can cling on, or trying to manage a transition to a new leader who would keep Minsk in Moscow’s orbit. Flight tracking data showed a Russian government plane used in the past by the FSB security service flew to Belarus and back overnight.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the EU to reject official results giving Lukashenko 80% of the vote. A 37-year-old political novice, she stood as his main challenger in the election after better-known opposition figures were jailed or banned from standing.
“Mr. Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world,” said Tsikhanouskaya in English, in a video address from exile in neighbouring Lithuania.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Gabriela Baczynska and John Chalmers in Brussels, Maria Kiselyova and Rinat Sagdiev in Moscow, Yoruk Isik in Istanbul, Geert De Clercq in Paris and Simon Johnson in Stockholm and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Jon Boyle, Philippa Fletcher and Gareth Jones
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