KYIV — Riot police violently suppressed thousands of protesters who poured into the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to challenge the results of Sunday’s hotly contested presidential election.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron first for 26 years, claimed a landslide victory in the election, which was marred by accusations of vote-rigging. The Belarusian Central Election Commission said preliminary results indicated that he won 80% of the vote while his surprise challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, finished second with just 9%. Authorities did not allow any independent observers to monitor the vote.
But on Monday, Tikhanovskaya claimed victory for herself. “We do not recognize the election results. We saw real ballots,” she was quoted by local media as saying. “We urge those who believe that their vote was stolen not to remain silent.”
She also said she was prepared to sit down with Lukashenko to discuss the situation. But Lukashenko, who was busy touring an agricultural facility and getting back to business, did not respond to the request on Monday.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, rose from obscurity after the jailing of her would-be candidate husband, a popular vlogger, to gather the largest political rallies in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union. According to her and to independent local media reports that published documents with the tallies, several precincts in Minsk showed her with 70% to 80% of the vote. In one video from a polling station, an election commission member is seen climbing down a ladder from a second-story window and being handed a bag presumably full of ballots.
Early Monday morning, Tikhanovskaya announced that she would not concede to Lukashenko or recognize the votes.
Many thousands of her supporters spilled into the streets of Minsk and several other cities across the country after polls closed Sunday night. The protesters marched through Minsk with their cellphones illuminated in the night sky before hundreds of armed security forces — many of whom had been bussed into the capital earlier in the day — began dispersing them.
Videos and photographs shared by independent Belarusian news outlets showed police officers hurling stun grenades and tear gas canisters into the crowds while people chanted “Long live Belarus!” and “Go away!” and “This is our country!”
Police were also seen firing rubber bullets at demonstrators and deploying water cannons and anti-riot vehicles to push the crowds back. Officers were seen on video chasing down protesters and clubbing them with batons before dragging some into vans and hauling them away. In some cases, officers were briefly overrun by groups of protesters.
Meanwhile, authorities managed to limit internet access and cellphone service, and to take down independent news websites, making it difficult for anyone to find information about the events and to communicate.
As night turned to early morning, the streets of Minsk were covered in blood, and tear gas hung in the air. Reports said more than 3,000 protesters had been detained by police and jailed. The human rights group Viasna reported that at least one protester died after sustaining brain injuries when a police truck ran him over. Several others were being treated for a variety of wounds inflicted by police. An Associated Press photographer was reportedly detained and beaten unconscious in the back of a police van.
Belarus’s Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 39 law enforcement officers and more than 50 protesters had been wounded in all.
Clashes were also reported in some 20 other cities, including Grodno and Brest in the country’s west. But in some of the smaller cities, riot police were reported to have refused to crack down on protesters. Videos shared online showed one group retreating and another putting down their shields. A protester is seen in one video approaching an officer and hugging him.
Overnight, Tikhanovskaya called on police forces to immediately halt attacks on demonstrators and for her supporters to stop any provocative actions. “I want to ask the militia and troops to remember that they are part of the people,” she said. “Please, stop the violence.”
Tikhanovskaya was part of an all-woman trio of political novices who managed to capture Belarusians’ imagination with a promise of change and three simple hand gestures that have become symbols of hope for people tired of Lukashenko: ✌️✊❤️. The women did so after several male candidates were barred from running and Lukashenko allowed Tikhanovskaya to register — something that now appears to have been a big political miscalculation.
Veronika Tsepkalo, one of the trio and a campaign adviser for Tikhanovskaya, told BuzzFeed News that she believed Lukashenko underestimated the potential of a woman candidate.
Famously known as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” Lukashenko has won five previous elections, although only the first one in 1994 was ruled free and fair by independent observers. He enjoyed strong support from Belarusians for years, mainly thanks to economic stability. But that support seemed to come to an end in recent months due to egregious human rights abuses, a stagnant economy, and his failure to properly handle the coronavirus pandemic, which has ripped through the population of 9.5 million.
While Lukashenko looks to move on, Tikhanovskaya’s chief of staff, Maria Kolesnikova, said on Monday that their team was ready for a long protest. And the candidate herself said she would do everything possible to overturn the results.