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Belarusian opposition leader expects new wave of protests

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya expects mass protests against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko to start up again in the spring and to be more organised than last year.

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Speaking to Reuters on a visit to Finland, Tsikhanouskaya said a majority of Belarusians still thought Lukashenko should step down and they had spent the winter getting organised.

“The chair under Lukashenko is shaking,” she said.

Belarusians took to the streets last year in large numbers after a presidential election in August that the opposition said was rigged. The authorities responded with a crackdown.

The size of the protests dwindled over the winter and Lukashenko, who promised to make unspecified reforms to the constitution, appears to have weathered the storm.

Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition is talking to people in the Belarusian elites, the state administration and riot police and was getting inside information about torture and violence.

“People near him cannot say it out loud but they understand he is not the leader anymore and it is better for them to support the majority of Belarusian people. Lukashenko has put the country into a political, humanitarian and economic crisis,” she said.

Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania the day after the election, said new protest structures were forming, some underground, and that they had already had some impact helping spur strikes or ensuring the ice hockey world championships were taken away from Belarus.

“We never had strikes before,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

The Belarus opposition is now “looking for friends everywhere,” said Tsikhanouskaya, whose team has reached out to China and Japan in addition to western countries.

In Finland on a four-day visit, she met Prime Minister Sanna Marin, President Sauli Niinistö and Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and suggested that Finland could act as a mediator in the Belarusian crisis.

Marin and Niinistö declined to comment the request to Reuters but Haavisto, the foreign minister, said he had told Tsikhanouskaya that he thought a third party could not mediate between the Belarusian opposition and the authorities.

Asked if she had tried to talk to Russia, which has played a key role supporting Lukashenko, Tsikhanouskaya said the opposition had sent many messages since the August election but has not received a reply.

Editing by Angus MacSwan