Protesters in Belarus gather to call for Alexander Lukashenko to step down as president

An estimated 200,000 protesters gathered in the heart of the capital of Belarus on Sunday contesting the continuation of President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule, as calls for the authoritarian leader to step down grow after a dispute election earlier this month.

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Critics of Mr. Lukashenko, who has rule the landlocked former Soviet republic for more than 25 years, have accused him of creating tension in the streets in an effort to distract from the ongoing political crisis.

Video Sunday showed the embattled president stepping off of a helicopter that he reportedly flew over the crowds in Minsk for hours. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and held a rifle as he arrived back at the Palace of Independence — a sign he could be digging in for an outright confrontation.

The protesters dispersed in the evening amid rain, and there were no immediate reports of arrests, The Associated Press reported. 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.

The Trump administration has stepped up its support of the ongoing protests and calls for “the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their leaders and to choose their own path, free from external intervention.”

In a statement last week, the State Department said it remains “deeply concerned by serious flaws in the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and strongly condemn the violence carried out against peaceful protesters and journalists, the arrest of opposition candidates and peaceful protesters, the blockage of Belarus‘ internet service, and the abuse of detainees.”

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Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun, the nation’s second highest-ranking diplomat, left Sunday for a European trip including stops in to Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Austria this week. While arms control and Russian-U.S. relations are a prime focus of the trip, Mr. Biegun is expected to hold face-to-face talks with officials on the expanding political crisis in Belarus and the fate of Mr. Lukashenko.

The State Department said Sunday that Mr. Biegun would participate in talks on “a range of regional and international issues” during the first leg of his trip. In Vienna, the department said he would consult with other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on “regional security and human rights.”

More than 100,000 protesters met in Minsk on Sunday and took over 17 acres in the massive Independence Square, marking an unprecedented gathering for Belarus, which is home to 9.5 million people, and is a sign that government efforts to intimidate the opposition were falling short..

Protests erupted after Mr. Lukashenko was handed a sixth term in office when election officials announced he had received over 80% of the vote, an outcome the opposition rejects as fraudulent.

The results have also been disputed by the European Union, which has not recognized Mr. Lukashenko as the victor. Russia, which has had an off-again, on-again relations with Mr. Lukashenko, last week pointed out discrepancies with the outcome of the election as a Kremlin spokesperson said “the election was not ideal. Of course not.”

The 65-year-old Lukashenko, who was first elected to office in 1994, has consistently blamed Western interference for the unrest. He has said that the U.S. has been responsible for the demonstrations and accused NATO of beefing up its troop presence in Poland and Lithuania to intimidate Belarus.

“We are seeing a serious movement of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of our borders in the territories of Poland and Lithuania,” Mr. Lukashenko claimed Saturday. He directed the Ministry of Defense to “take the strictest measures to defend the territorial integrity of our country.”

NATO press secretary Oana Lungescu said Sunday that “any claims about a NATO buildup on the border with Belarus are baseless.”

“As we have already made clear, NATO poses no threat to Belarus or any other country and has no military buildup in the region. Our posture is strictly defensive,” she said.

Mr. Lukashenko has also dismissed all opposition to his reign throughout his time in office as well as the country’s declining economy. But the reaction to the vote earlier this month presents perhaps the gravest challenge to his authority yet.

Belarus has changed,” protester Slava Chirkov told the AP. “Lukashenko has been able to unify everybody, from workers to intelligentsia, in the demand for change.”

Mr. Chirkov attended the protest with his family, who held up a sign that said, “Lukashenko, your milk has gone sour,” pointing to the president’s former job as the director of a Soviet-era collective farm.

Mr. Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania the day after the election. Several other possible challengers also left the country prior to the election.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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