▶ Watch Video: Belarus protests sparked by “fraudulent” election demand end to president’s 26-year rule

Minsk — In an unprecedented show of public outrage, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Minsk for the 10th straight night of demonstrations against the autocratic president of Belarus, who they say stole an election. 

“Get out! Get out! Get out!” chanted young and old, many waving Belarusian flags and posters that read, “WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE,” bearing the image of Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator.” He has ruled over the former Soviet state for 26 years, with virtually no accommodation for dissent.

Why now?

The current unrest kicked off after Lukashenko claimed to have won another term — with 80% of the vote — in an August 9 election widely perceived as rigged. 

Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has contested the results and fled to neighboring Lithuania after suggesting her children’s lives were at risk. 

People detained during opposition rallies show bruises they say were sustained during beatings as they leave the Okrestina prison in Minsk, August 14, 2020.

SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

Riot police in Belarus have violently suppressed protesters, pelting them with rubber bullets, water cannon, and in some cases even live ammunition. At least three people have been killed and thousands were swept up in a wave of mass arrests. Many have been released, and some have spoken of beatings and torture in custody, further fueling anger at Lukashenko.

“We are not afraid,” Ilona Elyashevich, who works for an urban development organization in Minsk, told CBS News as she protested in front of the House of Government. “The worst has already happened to us. We want a new government, a new president. We want clear and honest elections.” 

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Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally held to support him in central Minsk, on August 16, 2020.

SIARHEI LESKIEC

Lukashenko made an offer for constitutional changes in a bid to quell the unrest, but only after telling striking factory workers there would be no new vote, “until you kill me.” 

Opposition calls for support

Speaking in a video statement, exiled opposition leader Tikhanovskaya called Wednesday on European Union leaders to reject the official election results.

“For the second week in a row my nation is peacefully fighting for its constitutional right to elect its leaders,” Tikhanovskaya said in English. “I call on you not to recognize these fraudulent elections. Mr. Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world.”

EU leaders were meeting to discuss the crisis Wednesday.

Tikhanovskaya, 37, emerged as the president’s main rival in the past election after her husband, who had planned to run against him, was jailed. She has said she’s ready to step in and lead her nation until a new, fair election is held in the country. 

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Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) and her ally Maria Kolesnikova hold a press conference the day after Belarus’ presidential election in Minsk, August 10, 2020.

SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

Her representative in Minsk told reporters on Tuesday that she expected Tikhanovskaya to return and engage in a peaceful transition of power.

What happens next? 

The opposition in Belarus has launched a coordination council to organize a peaceful transfer of power, if Lukashenko agrees, or is forced to back down. The protests and strikes, demanding he resign, continue across the country meanwhile.

The council, a body designed to unite and streamline the efforts of various anti-government activists and groups formed by civil society members, was expected to hold its first meeting on Wednesday. 

Lukashenko has refused to step down, and he accuses the opposition council of plotting to seize power in the country. 

“We view it unambiguously: This is an attempt of a coup, with all ensuing consequences,” Lukashenko said during a televised meeting with the Belarusian Security Council on Tuesday.

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A man gestures in front of servicemen during an opposition protest in Minsk, Belarus, August 11, 2020.

SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

Lukashenko said Wednesday, after several days of relative calm protests in Minsk, that he had ordered his security forces to end the unrest, according to Belarusian news agency Belta.

Russia’s role

Moscow — and President Vladmir Putin personally — has long been Lukashenko’s closest and most valuable ally, but it wasn’t immediately clear how far the Kremlin would go to protect the embattled strongman next door.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned Wednesday against foreign interference in Belarus, offering the Kremlin’s first official comment on the protests. 

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) followed by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L), enters a meeting hall during the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, in Saint Petersburg on December 20, 2019.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP/Getty

“We consider everything happening in Belarus as an internal affair of this country,” Peskov told reporters, according to a transcript published by Russian media outlet Meduza. “We believe that in the current situation the main thing is that there is no outside influence.”

Peskov said Russia had seen attempts to interfere from outside the country, but he declined to elaborate.

Putin’s government has gone to significant lengths to keep former Soviet nations on the edge of Eastern Europe under its sphere of influence, and out of the EU’s. As his unilateral and internationally condemned annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine showed, he’s willing to use official and unofficial Russian military forces to that end.

On Wednesday, Lukashenko said there were no foreign forces inside Belarus, and that he was bolstering security at the borders to prevent any coming in.

He said it as rumors began to swirl that Russian forces were already on their way in to back up his forces.

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