The authoritarian president of Belarus made a dramatic show of defiance Sunday against the massive protests demanding his resignation, toting a rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest as he strode off a helicopter that landed at his residence while demonstrators massed nearby.
In the 15th day of the largest and most determined protests ever in independent Belarus, a crowd of about 200,000 rallied against President Alexander Lukashenko in a square in Minsk, the capital. They then marched to another rally and approached the Independence Palace, the president’s working residence.
Video from the state news agency Belta showed a government helicopter landing on the grounds and Lukashenko getting off holding what appeared to be a Kalashnikov-type automatic rifle. No ammunition clip was visible in the weapon, suggesting that Lukashenko, who cultivates an aura of machismo, aimed only to make a show of aggression.
Protests started Aug. 9 after a presidential election that officials say handed the 65-year-old Lukashenko his sixth term in office with 80% voter approval. Opponents claim the results are fraudulent.
The size and duration of the protests have been unprecedented for Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people that Lukashenko has ruled harshly for 26 years.
On Sunday afternoon, an opposition rally overflowed Minsk’s sprawling 7-hectare (17-acre) Independence Square. There were no official figures on crowd size, but it appeared to be about 200,000 people or more.
The demonstrators then marched to another square about 2.5 kilometers (1 1.2 miles) away and approached the edges of the presidential residence grounds, where police in full riot gear stood shoulder-to-shoulder, holding large shields.
The protesters dispersed in the evening amid rain.
There were no immediate reports of arrests. Earlier this month, some 7,000 people were arrested at protests, many of them badly beaten with clubs or wounded by rubber bullets, violence that only caused public outrage to swell.
Lukashenko appears to be flailing about for a strategy to counter the anti-government demonstrations.
He has repeatedly blamed Western interference, claimed the protests were backed by the United States and accuses NATO of building up troop concentrations in Poland and Lithuania on Belarus' western border, which the alliance denies. He also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to offer security assistance to his government to quell the protests if he asked for it.
Lukashenko has consistently repressed opposition during his time in office and weariness with his hardline rule, as well as dismay over the country's deteriorating economy and Lukashenko's cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic, appear to have galvanized opponents.
“Belarus has changed. Lukashenko has been able to unify everybody, from workers to intelligentsia, in the demand for change,” said protester Slava Chirkov, who attended Sunday’s demonstration with his wife and son.
They held a sign declaring “Lukashenko, your milk has gone sour,” referencing Lukashenko’s former job as the director of a Soviet-era collective farm.
A similarly enormous crowd turned out for a protest a week ago and daily demonstrations have taken place since the vote. Several of the country's key factories have been hit with protest strikes by workers fed up with government polices. Those strikes not only threaten the already-ailing economy, but show that opposition to Lukashenko extends beyond educated white-collar circles and into his traditional blue-collar base.
“Are you going to work for a dictator? Strike — that's our answer,” Sergei Dilevsky, leader of the strike committee at the Minsk Tractor Works, one of Belarus' largest industrial enterprises, told protesters at Sunday's second rally site.
Lukashenko's main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election. Several other possible challengers fled the country even before the election.
An opposition Coordination Council was created last week to develop a strategy for a transition of power, but authorities in Belarus have opened a criminal probe into its formation.
Also Sunday, more than 50,000 Lithuanians joined hands in a human chain stretching 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the capital of Vilnius to the Belarus border to express solidarity with the protesters.
While Belarus is a former Soviet republic on the fault line between Russia and Europe, Belarus 2020 isn’t Ukraine 2014, and that’s why it’s hard to predict what will happen next.
Here is a look at what’s different this time, and why it matters:
The uprising in Belarus erupted last week in a democratic vacuum, in a country where challengers to President Alexander Lukashenko are jailed or exiled and where there is no experienced parliamentary opposition.
So those at the forefront of Minsk protest marches have been ordinary Belarusians, instead of established political leaders like those who helped galvanize crowds and funding for Ukraine’s 2014 protest movement, centered around the Maidan independence square in Kyiv.
In Belarus, “the absence of bright leaders undoubtedly weakens the protests ... Leaders bring awareness,” independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich said.
So Belarusian protesters formed a new Advisory Council this week to try to “offer the street a clear plan and agenda,” he said.
However, opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova argues that the mass protests this month in Minsk, which came together in decentralized clusters via messaging app Telegram, show that Belarusians no longer need a vertical hierarchy telling them what to do.
And a leaderless protest has one key advantage, she said: “It cannot be beheaded.”
ORDERLY, AND OK WITH RUSSIA
When unprecedented crowds of 200,000 people marched through the tidy, broad avenues of Minsk on Sunday, they came to a halt at red traffic lights, waiting obediently until they turned green.
In Ukraine, by contrast, “protesters burned tires and threw Molotov cocktails,” said Syarzhuk Chyslau, leader of the Belarusian White Legion organization.
That’s in part because the Minsk marches lack the kind of far-right and neo-Nazi militant groups that joined Ukraine’s uprising and fanned the violence.
It's also because Belarusians aren’t driven by the deep-seated anger at Russian influence that fueled Ukraine’s uprisings in 2004 and 2014, or Georgia’s ground-breaking Rose Revolution in 2003.
While Ukraine has been geopolitically split between pro-West and pro-Russian camps since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarusians are broadly Moscow-friendly.
Not a single European Union flag has appeared at the Minsk rallies, and the protesters aren’t pursuing NATO membership at the Kremlin’s expense; they just want to freely choose their own leader after an election they believe was stolen from them.
Pavel Latushko, a former Lukashenko loyalist now on the protesters’ Advisory Council, hopes this could allow Belarusians to count on help from both Brussels and Moscow to settle the current tensions.
“If the EU and Russia together acted as a mediator in resolving the Belarusian crisis, this would be an ideal option,” Latushko told The Associated Press.
While Ukraine’s protest movement built a huge tent camp in the center of Kyiv, complete with food delivery and security forces, the only perks for protesters in Belarus so far are bottles of water.
“There are no oligarchs in Belarus who would give money for hot meals, medical treatment and tents. Even to pay police fines, Belarusian protesters collect money themselves,” analyst Alexander Klaskouski said.
Unlike Ukraine's largely privatized economy, Belarus’ economy remains 80% state-run, and little has evolved since the Soviet era. That makes it even more remarkable that workers at state-run factories have joined this week’s protests and strikes.
“The structure of the economy allowed Ukrainians not to be afraid of the state, which in Belarus could throw any person out on the street with nothing at all,” said Klaskouski.
The EU and U.S. also had economic interests in Ukraine before its 2014 uprising, but have only a marginal role in the largely closed-off Belarusian economy.
Given that, the Kremlin can’t easily portray Belarus’ protests as a Western-backed effort to sow chaos in its backyard the way it could in Ukraine. Russia used that argument to justify its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and backing for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a war that still simmers, six years on.
But Russia’s role in Belarus is pivotal, as the country’s top trade partner and main military ally.
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear to Germany and France that they should steer clear of any interference, but hasn’t revealed how he wants to deal with the protesters or with Lukashenko, the only leader in the former Soviet space who’s been in power longer than Putin himself.
Ukraine has been a cacophonous democracy for much of the 29 years since winning independence from the USSR, and Belarus is dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship — but they share some similarities.
“Lukashenko made the same mistake as (former Ukrainian President Viktor) Yanukovych — he began to brutally beat peaceful protesters, which sparked a tsunami of popular protest, insulted dignity and triggered a revolution,” said analyst Vladimir Fesenko, director of the Penta Center in Kyiv.
Belarusian economist Dmitry Rusakevich, 46, participated in the Kyiv protests on the Maidan, and now goes out to Minsk’s Independence Square every evening.
“Maidan woke up Belarusians and showed that we need to fight for freedom,” he said. “It took the calm Belarusians a long time to muster the courage to say no to the dictator.”
_Jim Heintz in Moscow and Luida Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.contributed to this story