Belarus unrest: President Lukashenko accuses opposition of staging coup

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Opposition supporters take part in a protest in front of the prison where Sergei Tikhanovsky is held in Minsk

Image copyright
EPA

Image caption

As far as the protesters outside the prison are concerned, President Lukashenko got 0% of the vote

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has accused the opposition of trying to stage a coup, amid widespread anger over a disputed election.

Speaking as opposition leaders formed a council to organise a transfer of power, he said: “We definitely consider this as an attempt to seize power.”

The opposition contests the official results of the 9 August poll, which gave Mr Lukashenko 80% of the vote.

The country has since seen 10 days of street protests and strikes.

The protesters allege massive vote-rigging and say the winner was opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who officially secured only about 10% of votes.

There were no independent election observers.

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Hundreds of protesters have been wounded and two have died in clashes with police during the post-election protests. Thousands have been arrested, and many have spoken of torture at the hands of security forces.

Ms Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania, after being after arrested in the aftermath of the vote.

Mr Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, insists he has won fairly and has ruled out holding another election.

What has Lukashenko said?

On Tuesday he threatened action against the 35 people appointed by Ms Tikhanovskaya to the opposition co-ordination council, saying he had the means to “cool those hotheads”.

The group includes artists, writers and business people.

In a televised meeting, Mr Lukashenko said the group’s aim was clear: “They demand nothing less than the transfer of power. We see it unequivocally: it is an attempt to seize power… with all the consequences that come with it.”

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Also on Tuesday, he awarded medals “for impeccable service” to security officials who have helped him crack down on protesters.

At the weekend, more than 100,000 people gathered in Minsk – the largest protest held in Belarus since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 – to express opposition to his rule.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionLarge crowds of anti-government demonstrators rallied in the capital on Sunday

Strike action is also keeping up the pressure on the president. State TV and key factories have been affected, and postal workers are now also reported to have joined the strikes.

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On a visit to a tractor plant on Monday, Mr Lukashenko defended the official election tally, telling workers: “We held the election. Until you kill me, there will be no other election.”

But as he spoke, many in the audience booed him and chanted “leave”.

What else happened on Tuesday?

Hundreds of opposition protesters gathered outside a Minsk prison to mark the birthday of Ms Tikhanovskaya’s jailed husband.

Sergei Tikhanovsky, who has just turned 42, was detained on charges of inciting violence, alongside other rivals of President Lukashenko ahead of the 9 August poll.

Ms Tikhanovskaya, who is now in Lithuania, ran in his place.

Many protesters held red-and-white balloons, the colours of the opposition, while some chanted “happy birthday Sergei” and sang a song about prison walls coming down.

Skip Twitter post by @tutby

В Минске собравшиеся у тюрьмы на Володарского громко скандировали «Сергей, с днем рождения!». Сегодня Сергею Тихановскому исполняется 42 года. pic.twitter.com/PXejfGMRnC

— TUT.BY (@tutby) August 18, 2020

End of Twitter post by @tutby

Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, said her husband was spending his birthday in prison because of “a crime he did not commit”.

“All of this blatant lawlessness and injustice shows how this rotting system works, in which one person controls everything, one person who has kept the country in fear for 26 years, one person who robbed Belarusians of their choice,” she said in a video message.

Image copyright
EPA

Image caption

Many protesters regard Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimately elected president

Ms Tikhanovskaya says that if votes had been counted correctly, she would have won a comfortable majority.

What’s happening internationally?

Mr Lukashenko, who has maintained close ties with neighbouring Russia, has sought Moscow’s help, saying President Vladimir Putin has promised to provide assistance in the event of any external military threat.

On Tuesday, Mr Putin had phone calls with both Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Both said the Belarusian government must start a dialogue with the opposition. Mr Putin told them that foreign interference would only escalate the crisis, Russian officials say.

EU leaders are to hold an emergency video summit on Wednesday. EU foreign ministers agreed last week to prepare new sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for “violence, repression and the falsification of election results”.

On Monday, the UK said it did not accept the results of the “fraudulent” election and US President Donald Trump said his administration was following the “terrible situation” in Belarus closely.

More about the protests in Belarus

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionOpposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and President Lukashenko give very different messages