18.05.2022

Embattled Alexander Lukashenko makes on knees appeal to stay in power as opposition rallies attract tens of thousands

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In Minsk today, it was a tale of two rallies.

On the one hand was a show put on by Alexander Lukashenko, the 26-year ‘dictator’ whose reign towered over Belarusians until just a few days ago. On the other was a pro-opposition demonstration, emboldened after workers from most state enterprises joined them in a national strike.

Mr Lukashenko made an emotional appeal in front of an underwhelming crowd of a few thousand, many of whom had reportedly been bussed in specially for the occasion.

“I kneel down in front of you for the first time in my life,” the disputed president said – without, as many noted, actually kneeling.

In one of the most dramatic weeks in its history, the tiny nation of Belarus has witnessed a chain of astonishing events: disputed elections, a withering crackdown, evidence of horrific torture, a fightback led by women, and a major national strike.

Today it witnessed another first: footage of the man who once styled himself as a “strongman” in decidedly grovelling mode.

“I’m not a fan of demonstrations,” he said. “But it’s not my fault that I had to ask you to help.”

Mr Lukashenko presented the crisis as being more than a personal disaster; it was one of a broader “conflict” between east and west. He refused to accept a re-run of the elections, saying that was the agenda of foreign powers:

“If we do as we are told, we die as a nation. They propose sending Nato soldiers our way: black, yellow-mouthed, and blonde hair. If that’s what you want, do it without me.”

Mr Lukashenko’s angry rhetoric contrasted with jubilant scenes across town near the city’s main war memorial.

There, tens of thousands had gathered for what many were describing as the largest opposition rally in the country’s history. Dressed in white and red – the colours of the traditional national flag adopted by the opposition – the protesters chanted out in unison calls for Mr Lukashenko to resign.

That indignity continued a calamitous run of events for the man who has ruled Belarus since 1994.

A week ago, the authoritarian put his faith in a display of force, with his special forces doling out brutal violence against protesters and many more besides. Instead, the country became enraged by the footage of arbitrary violence on the streets and torture in jails. They came out in ever greater numbers, and their momentum seems unstoppable.

There are signs of splintering in the regime itself.

On Saturday morning, the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, a former presidential adviser, became the latest government figure to switch sides.

“Hundreds of my compatriots saw for themselves police rekindling the worst traditions of NKVD,” Igor Leshchenya said, in reference to the Soviet secret police. … “I stand in solidarity with those who came out on the streets. The only source of power is the people.”

One side currently sticking by Mr Lukashenko – at least publicly – is Moscow. On Sunday, Belarusian state media reported that the embattled autocrat had held a second phone call with Vladimir Putin. An official readout said that Russia and Belarus would ”jointly respond” if the situation gets worse.

But the Kremlin will have been watching today’s events closely and may well come to conclude their man has gone past the point of saving.

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