Belarus opposition candidate rejects election result after night of protests

Andrew Roth in Moscow and Yan Auseyushkin in Minsk
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

At least one person has been killed and dozens injured in clashes between riot police and protesters in Belarus in the second night of protests against Alexander Lukashenko after the president claimed victory in elections amid accusations of vote-rigging.

The fighting late on Monday appeared to escalate as police once again employed rubber bullets and stun grenades against demonstrators, while some shot back with fireworks and several Molotov cocktails, according to a Guardian reporter who estimated the crowd at several thousand people.

Protesters also began constructing crude barricades from shopping carts, fencing, breezeblocks and other items found on the street.

Some said they had decided to join the protests after scenes of harrowing violence on Sunday evening, when police attacked demonstrators with rubber bullets, water cannon, stun grenades and batons.

“I never went to protests before and until yesterday and I told everyone I know not to go either,” said a young protestor in a hoodie wearing a medical mask. “But when I saw how they beat people across the street from my house, I realised I couldn’t sit at home any longer.”

The clashes came after the opposition issued a message of defiance on Monday, rejecting the results of a presidential election marred by vote-rigging as the country braced for a second night of protests against Lukashenko.

“I will believe my own eyes – the majority was for us,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told reporters in the capital, Minsk, on Monday, after widespread reports of vote-tampering in Sunday’s election.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, expressed concern about the conduct of the election “which was not free and fair”.

“We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations,” Pompeo added in a statement.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Lukashenko’s actions were “not the actions of a political leader confident that he has won a fairly conducted election” and called for a transparent vote count and the release of political prisoners.

He said: “After suffering systematic repression for the past 26 years under the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenka (sic), the people of Belarus are demanding their voices be heard.”

Tikhanovskaya went missing for several hours on Monday evening in an unexplained disappearance that raised concerns that she had been attacked or decided to flee the country.

After going to the election’s commission to file a complaint on Monday afternoon, she was said to vanish, neither answering calls nor telling staffers where she had gone. A press secretary told local media that she had said “I’ve made a decision” before leaving the elections commission alone.

Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian foreign minister, wrote: “Tried to reach Svetlana #Tikhanovskaya for several hours. Her whereabouts not known even to her staff. Concerned about her safety.”

Late on Monday evening she reappeared, according to Belarusian media. It was not clear where she had gone and neither she nor aides replied to requests from the Guardian for comment.

Tikhanovskaya said she considered herself the winner, not Lukashenko, and described the election as massively rigged. “The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us,” she said. “I consider myself the winner of this election.”

Her aides said the opposition wanted a vote recount at polling stations where there were reports of vote tampering. They also said the opposition wanted to hold talks with authorities about how to bring about a peaceful change of power.

Lukashenko, who is facing the deepest crisis of his 26 years in power, has threatened to crush any illegal rallies. He claimed that the protests were being directed from abroad, singling out Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic.

Tikhanovskaya has stopped short of joining street protests and her team released a statement on Monday evening saying they feared her appearance could lead to “provocations”.

But the harrowing scenes of violence on the streets of Minsk and dozens more Belarusian cities are expected to bring more people onto the streets on Monday evening, with rallies anticipated to begin at 7pm.

The protests have largely been decentralised, with no clear leader, although popular bloggers on social media have played an important role in their coordination. Protesters organising over Telegram channels discussed bringing protective gear such as goggles and first-aid kits as they expected fresh clashes with riot police armed with batons, rubber bullets, water cannon and stun grenades.

The country’s election commission reported late on Monday that Lukashenko had won 80.08% of the vote while Tikhanovskaya took just 10.09%, despite a popular wave of support for the opposition candidate, whose political rallies have drawn some of the country’s largest crowds since the days of the Soviet Union.

Similar, preliminary results released on Sunday prompted unprecedented protests in cities across the country, posing the greatest threat to Lukashenko – often referred to as Europe’s last dictator – since he came to power. Foreign observers have not declared a Belarusian election free and fair since 1995.

Police detained about 3,000 people in Sunday’s bloody clashes, the Belarusian interior ministry said, with more than 2,000 of them in the country’s regions, where support for Lukashenko is higher than in the capital.

Lukashenko declared on Monday that he would put down the opposition rallies, calling the protesters “sheep” under foreign control who were “wanting to spoil the holiday”.

“I warned that there wouldn’t be a maidan, however much some people want that,” Lukashenko said on Monday, referring to a popular uprising in Ukraine that toppled a pro-Kremlin leader in 2014. “People need to settle down, calm down,” he said.

Lukashenko’s victory was quickly endorsed by Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has feuded with Lukashenko in recent weeks. In a congratulatory message, Putin urged Lukashenko to consider further economic and legal integration with Russia, which the opposition has warned would undermine Belarus’s sovereignty.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, stopped short of congratulating Lukashenko and in a statement called for restraint and an end to street violence which took place in more than 20 cities on Monday in the largest mass protest since Lukashenko took power in 1994.

A reporter for the Guardian saw police use water cannon and rubber bullets against protesters, while photographs showed field medics tending to bloodied protesters with wounds from batons and rubber bullets. One protester said the elections results were a “spit in the face”.

“It’s certainly the biggest protest I’ve ever seen in Belarus since Lukashenko came to power,” said David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on Belarus. “In terms of the elections that Lukashenko’s held, there’s been nothing like it. It seems to me that the whole country really is in favour of change.”

Riot police detain a demonstrator in Minsk on Sunday.
Riot police detain a demonstrator in Minsk on Sunday. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

Video and photographs of the clashes also showed police using Czech-made stun grenades. The manufacturer denied on Monday that it had sold the devices to Belarus, which is under an arms embargo. Protesters have also been contending with a shutdown of the internet, as well as blocking of independent Belarusian news sites.

Related: Revolution or repression? Belarus stands at a crossroads

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission, called for Belarus to publish accurate results, and condemned the violence against opposition supporters. “Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe,” she said.

Analysts said it was the deepest crisis Lukashenko had faced in his career. He was already facing unprecedented anger over his handling of the economy and a bungled coronavirus response. Before the elections he jailed opposition candidates and targeted foreign allies, accusing Moscow of sending mercenaries to destabilise the country.

A man lies on the ground in front of riot police during a protest in Minsk on Sunday.
A man lies on the ground in front of riot police during a protest in Minsk on Sunday. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

Tikhanovskaya was initially a stand-in candidate for her husband, a popular YouTuber jailed earlier in the year. She has grown into an effective campaigner, attracting more than 63,000 people to a rally last month in Minsk, and thousands more in small cities and towns usually dominated by Lukashenko.

She has been joined on stage by two other female politicians in a “trio” that has transformed the image of the country’s male-dominated politics.