Belarus opposition calls nationwide strike as Lukashenko’s deadline to quit expires

·3-min read

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said Monday supporters were beginning a nationwide strike after her deadline expired for strongman Alexander Lukashenko to step down.

Factory workers on Monday chanted slogans, students took to the streets and police made detentions as Belarusians answered the opposition call for a national strike, local media footage showed.

Tikhanovskaya had given Lukashenko until Sunday to quit power, halt violence against protesters and release political prisoners, warning he would otherwise face a general strike from Monday.

The 66-year-old Lukashenko, accused by the opposition of stealing August elections, ignored the ultimatum, and police cracked down on the latest of a series of opposition protests on Sunday.

"Today the People's Strike is beginning," Tikhanovskaya said on her Telegram channel.

"Employees of state factories and enterprises, transport workers and miners, teachers and students have gone on strike since this morning."

Tikhanovskaya called on members of private businesses, clergy and athletes to join in.

The 38-year-old opposition figure, who claims to have won the August 9 election and is now based in Lithuania, an EU member state, did not provide any figures on the number of people participating.

A new phase

If sustained, the strikes could open a new phase in the crisis, testing whether the opposition has the mass support it needs to bring companies across the country of 9.5 million people to a halt. Previously, the opposition mounted some strikes at state-run factories, but they were not sustained.

Local media reported groups of strikers at many major state-controlled enterprises. However, the prime minister's spokeswoman said all the country's major industrial companies were working normally.

Security officers in plain clothes stood next to vans outside the Minsk Tractor Works and Minsk Automobile Plant. A witness said one person was detained.

Hundreds of students marched out of several universities in Minsk clapping and chanting as passing cars tooted their horns in support.

On one street, black-clad officers in masks poured out of vans, detaining people and dragging them away, footage from news website Tut.by showed. One group of students sprinted away after being dispersed by police, other footage, from the Nasha Niva outlet, showed.

Test of Russian support

If strikes come close to paralysing the country, it could be a further test of Russian support for its ally Lukashenko.

Since the crisis began, Moscow has backed him with a $1.5 billion loan and increased security cooperation, including a series of joint military exercises and a visit last week by the head of Russia's foreign intelligence agency. Russia even sent journalists to staff Belarusian state TV when employees quit in protest against what they described as propaganda.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. Official results showed him the landslide winner of the August 9 election. The opposition and Western countries say the vote was rigged, which he denies.

Around 15,000 people have since been arrested during a crackdown on mass demonstrations. Nearly all opposition leaders fled or were jailed.

Western countries have imposed travel bans and asset freezes against some officials they accuse of election fraud and human rights abuses, but have had to balance their support for the pro-democracy movement with reluctance to provoke Russia.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)