Belarus Strongman Targets Protest Leaders as Opposition Woos EU

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko began detaining leaders of the largest protests in the country’s history, signaling a new tactic after police violence against peaceful demonstrators sparked widespread outrage.

The arrests came after huge crowds gathered in the capital Minsk on Sunday to protest the contested Aug. 9 elections and as strikes across the country drag on the economy. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addressed the European Parliament Tuesday with a call for a new vote.

“In the past two weeks the Belarusians have showed that they will not relent and they will not give up,” Tsikhanouskaya said via video conference from Lithuania, where she fled after the elections. “The will of the people will not be broken.”

Police detained several leaders of strike committees in the country’s large state-owned enterprises, including Soligorsk-based potash maker Belaruskali and at least two major factories in the capital Minsk.

Volha Kavalkova, a member of the opposition’s coordination council, is on trial for resisting arrest and taking part in unsanctioned public rallies, human rights center Viasna said Tuesday. Siarhei Dyleuski, a council member who is on the strike committee at Minsk Tractor Plant, was sentenced to 10 days in prison, according to Viasna.

Not Geopolitical

The detentions are the first of opposition leaders since former banker Viktor Babariko was jailed in June. Police tried to use violence to quash the first round of protests, killing at least three people and allegedly torturing some of the 7,000 people who were detained.

Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has cracked down on dissent since the vote. Several dozen websites critical of the government remain blocked and at least four newspapers, including Russian-owned Komsomolskaya Pravda, were unable to get printed in a state-owned publishing house.

Tsikhanouskaya, who was Lukashenko’s main challenger, said in her address that the protests are not geopolitical and called for dialog with the ruling regime. The U.S. and EU have denounced the elections and called for talks.

Undermining ties with Russia is “not in the interest of Belarusian society, the majority of which is represented by the coordination council,” opposition politician Pavel Latushka said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Belarus should become a strong concrete bridge between Russia and the West.”

Nobel Laureate

The Kremlin, which has congratulated Lukashenko on his victory, welcomes the opposition’s willingness to partner with Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters.

The authorities have resisted any negotiations. The coordinating council of the opposition is unconstitutional, state-owned news agency Beltareported, citing Chairman of the Constitutional Court Piotr Miklashevich.

Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, a member of the council and a prominent critic of Lukashenko, has been summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov, and Stepan Kravchenko

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