More than 100,000 protesters faced down riot police and water cannons in Minsk to converge on the residence of President Lukashenko of Belarus, defying his efforts to stifle dissent by arresting opposition leaders or forcing them into exile.
The regime responded with water cannon, and in at least one case riot police fired live ammunition into the air as the protest, dubbed the “March of Heroes”, swelled throughout the afternoon, with huge columns of demonstrators repeatedly changing their route in an attempt to avoid roadblocks set up by the security services.
The protests erupted last month after an election on August 9 that was widely viewed as rigged by Mr Lukashenko to try to extend his 26-year rule. The country is a strategic buffer state separating Russia from Nato member states in the Baltic and Poland. Mr Lukashenko will meet President Putin today in Moscow for crunch talks.
The march was part of a weekend in which women led demands for the release of Maria Kolesnikova, an opposition leader, following an attempt to expel her to Ukraine that failed when she ripped up her passport. Ms Kolesnikova’s stand at the border has galvanized many supporters, offering protesters a tangible and immediate demand in her release from jail, after a month of calling for new elections.
Mr Lukashenko, 66, deployed the army across the capital yesterday and the security forces detained scores of people before the march had begun and tried to stop them marching on the area of Drozdy, home to the president and many of his cronies. In total about 400 people were arrested, according to the ministry of the interior.
Ms Kolesnikova’s stand at the border has galvanized many supporters, offering protesters a tangible and immediate demand in her release from jail.
In a sign that the protesters’ strategies are evolving as they work to outmaneuver security forces and avoid arrests, women are playing an increasingly significant role in trying to tackle the riot police and KGB agents that have tried to stop the demonstrations.
Groups of women have taken to swarming KGB agents, forcing the release of those they were attempting to detain, and in a number of other instances women have taken to pulling off the balaclavas from security forces at protests, so that they can be publicly identified and shamed, and in many cases forcing them to scurry away.
Several channels have sprung up on the encrypted messaging app Telegram devoted to identifying those whose faces have been exposed.
With hundreds of thousands of Belarusians following the channels, details including phone numbers and addresses of the agents are then published, often within hours of their unmasking. In one incident plainclothesmen dragged a man from his car in the city center after he stopped to allow a column of women protesters to cross the road and hauled him into a van with blacked-out windows. Dozens of women responded by surrounding the vehicle, screaming, banging on the windows and attempting to open the doors and release the detained man.
Unable to drive away, the masked men driving the van called for back-up, and it was only after a troop of riot police arrived to physically clear the women that it was able to drive away.
Some in the security forces have responded with greater force, with one riot police officer pictured punching a woman in the face after she pulled his balaclava down.
One protestor, Inna Vasleva, 31, told The Times: “Isn’t it funny that in a country where the president ignored the coronavirus pandemic, the only ones wearing masks are the government’s thugs? They have beaten us, they have kicked us. Once the fear is gone, and it is gone now, they have no strength.”
“Isn’t it funny that in a country where the president ignored the coronavirus pandemic, the only ones wearing masks are the government’s thugs?”
In other signs of groups mass mobilizing to blunt the security services’ effectiveness, masked men were chased into a van by a column of protesters linking arms and shouting “long live Belarus” in the city of Novopolotsk.
The opposition is likely to take encouragement from such scenes and the scale of the turnout in the capital after a week in which arrests have severely depleted the opposition leadership. The Co-ordination Council, a body set up by the exiled Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya — who many believe won last month’s presidential election — has been targeted, with only one of its seven-member executive, the Nobel-Prize winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, free and in the country.
One woman at the protests held aloft a sign that read: “Svetlana is my president; Maria is my queen. Let them home now.”