Serious clashes have broken out between police and protesters in Belarus following disputed exit polls that claimed to show a 79.7 per cent victory for long-time president Alexander Lukashenko in Sunday’s elections.
In Minsk, which saw the worst violence, water cannon, stun grenades and rounds of rubber bullets were deployed against protesters. In at two instances, a police van drove into crowds. At least four people ended up in intensive care.
In other cities across the country, officers reportedly laid down arms and crossed to the side of protesters.
The unity opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the face of the scarcely credible 6.8 per cent assigned to her by the official poll, called on police and army officers to stop the violence. “I want to ask them to remember that they are part of the nation too,” she said.
Hours before voting ended, Belarus had all but declared a state of emergency. Footage of soldiers and military equipment entering the capital was widely shared by locals.
By 1800 local time (1500 GMT), most of the capital’s central squares and government buildings had been cordoned off. Transport systems were shut down. Roads in and out of the capital were also closed.
The regime’s obvious nervousness extended to efforts to control the internet. Major disruptions to mobile networks were reported from the morning, with connections practically grinding to a halt at around 2200 local time. Proxy servers, used widely in these parts to get around censorship, became unreliable.
Journalists and other independent observers appeared to be a target. At around 1400 local time, three reporters from the Russian liberal outlet TV Dozhd were handcuffed, held to the ground, and arrested. Just before midnight, AP photographer Mstyslav Chernov was admitted to hospital with suspected concussion after being beaten by riot police while inside a police van.
Sunday’s events came at the end of an unexpectedly panicked campaign for Belarus’s longtime leader – one that saw opposition candidates jailed, protesters snatched from the streets, the president claim a scarcely believable Russian-backed plot, and where the opposition candidate was forced into hiding on the eve of voting.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, was never supposed to mount a serious challenge, only entering the race after President Lukashenko jailed her husband, and presidential hopeful, Sergei Tikhanovsky. Famously dismissive of women in politics, Mr Lukashenko seemed to believe the housewife and former translator didn’t have a chance.
But her invigorating, earnest campaign surprised Belarus and it wrong-footed Mr Lukashenko.
Opposition supporters stay in front of law enforcement officers blocking a street in Minsk (Reuters)
Few expected Ms Tikhanovskaya to reach an agreement with the campaign teams of other banned opposition candidates – but she managed to do so in just 15 minutes. Few believed she could lead a clear campaign – but she did so with simple promises to deliver fresh elections, walk back authoritarian changes to the constitution, and free political prisoners.
Flanked by Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, another barred candidate, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager for jailed Viktor Barbariko, Ms Tikhanovskaya’s opposition campaign took on unmistakably feminist, modern slant. It also brought over 200,000 people to the streets in support – an astonishing achievement in Belarus, a police state of just 9 million people, and where dissent often leads to jail.
Underestimating Ms Tikhanovskaya was only not the only mistake the usually clever and adroit Mr Lukashenko made in the run-up to the elections. His electoral rating was hit hard by a perceived cavalier approach to the Covid-19 epidemic: he claimed the virus was avoidable with vodka, trips to the sauna and work in the field. His management of the country’s increasingly desperate economic position – and its rapidly unwinding model of Soviet planning with Russian subsidies – also provoked much anger.
Given the fact independent polling is illegal in Belarus, it was never entirely clear quite how vulnerable “Europe’s last dictator” became to Ms Tikanovskaya’s challenge.
But results from a handful of Minsk polling stations appeared to support the opposition claim that Ms Tikhanovskaya, in fact, won – and convincingly.
Unprecedented numbers of voters appeared to answer Ms Tikhanovskaya’s call to vote late on Sunday – the logic was this would make falsifications more difficult. But the head of the election’s committee, a key Lukashenko ally and chief vote counter, described the huge queues as “provocations” by the opposition. Earlier, she described the opposition as a “totalitarian sect”.
Independent exit polls conducted outside polling stations in foreign embassies also painted a different picture to the official figures. According to this poll, Mr Lukashenko received just 6.25 per cent, compared to Ms Tikhanovskaya with 79.69 per cent.
Ahead of the end of voting, Mr Luksahenko dismissed his rivals as being “unworthy of repression”. But he also seemed to make ominous warnings for those intending to protest.
“All our structures and special services are ready and waiting,” he said. “There is no reason for our country to be plunged into chaos or civil war. I guarantee you that.”