Belarus Opposition Leader Re-Emerges to Back General Strike

Exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya emerged in a new video Friday to back calls for a general strike against the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, insisting that she had won Sunday’s presidential election.

“The situation is critical,” said Tikhanovskaya, urging mayors of all Belarusian towns and cities to call demonstrations with citizens on Saturday and Sunday to back the victory she said she won in the vote. “Let’s together defend our choice.”

She thanked workers of state-run companies who “are already not afraid and have gone on strike” in support of her and appealed to others to join them, saying Belarusians no longer want to live under Lukashenko’s rule. “The majority don’t believe in his victory,” she said.

The video was Tikhanovskaya’s first appearance since she fled to neighboring Lithuania after being detained for about seven hours in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Monday. In contrast to two videos that emerged shortly after her departure, she appeared relaxed and confident as she condemned violence against protesters and thanked supporters for backing her call for political change.

“Our voices must be heard,” she said.

Work Stoppages

Thousands of workers in major state-run enterprises, including the giant Minsk Automobile Plant and the Minsk Tractor Factory, gathered at their factories Friday and issued statements demanding fresh elections, an end to police violence and the release of detainees. One group began a march toward the government building after Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko refused to meet with them during a visit to the tractor factory.

Others began walking out on Thursday, including hundreds of people at Zhodino-based Belaz, which produces trucks used in mining.

Yields on Belarus debt due in 2031 rose 33 basis points to 7.66% Friday, the highest since the note was sold in June. Belarus dollar bonds have handed investors the second-worst returns in emerging markets this month as the post-election crackdown sparked a selloff.

In a later statement, Tikhanovskaya said her election team was forming a coordination council to provide for a transfer of power and invited leaders of civil society groups to join. She appealed to international organizations and European nations to help initiate dialogue with Belarusian authorities.

European Union foreign ministers agreed at talks Friday to ask the bloc to start drawing up a list of Lukashenko’s officials who could be sanctioned over the disputed election and the regime’s violence toward protesters, according to officials briefed on the discussions.

They stopped short of taking a final decision to impose sanctions, which may come at a scheduled meeting of foreign ministers in Berlin at the end of this month, the officials said.

Lukashenko denied speculation that he had left the country and called on workers to stay at their posts, the state-owned Belta news service reported Friday.

Belarus’s Central Election Commission rejected all formal complaints from candidates about the conduct of the vote as it announced final results Friday giving Lukashenko 80.1% and Tikhanovskaya 10.1%.

‘Must Resign’

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign ally Maria Kalesnikava said police who beat protesters and officials involved in ballot fraud must be held legally accountable. “The former president must resign,” Kalesnikava said in a video statement.

The threat of a general strike is a further blow to Lukashenko, who built much of his support during his 26-year rule on maintaining employment at state-run enterprises following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite brutal crackdowns by riot police and more than 6,700 detentions, he has faced daily protests since claiming to have won Sunday’s presidential election with 80% support.

The government appeared to change tack after thousands joined peaceful marches in Minsk and other cities Thursday, often led by women dressed in white and waving flowers to call for an end to police brutality.

Interior Minister Yuriy Karaev appeared on state TV late Thursday and apologized for “violence, as they call it,” while also insisting that riot police had acted to “save the county’s constitutional integrity.”

As officials unexpectedly began to free many detainees from prisons overnight, those who had been released gave harrowing accounts of torture which spread through social media after a block on Internet access was lifted.

The authorities’ strategy appears to be to “make small concessions, apologize a little, don’t touch the women’s protests, in the hope that the protesters will get tired and disperse,” Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics, wrote on Telegram.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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