Belarus leader gets birthday call from Putin amid pressure from demonstrators

Law enforcement officers blocking a street as opposition supporters protested in Minsk yesterday against the presidential election results. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is struggling to contain weeks of protests and strikes after winning
Law enforcement officers blocking a street as opposition supporters protested in Minsk yesterday against the presidential election results. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is struggling to contain weeks of protests and strikes after winning an Aug 9 election his opponents say was rigged. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW • Tens of thousands of Belarusians chanting "Happy Birthday, you rat" and flying red-and-white opposition flags gathered near President Alexander Lukashenko's residence yesterday as protesters kept up pressure on the veteran leader to resign.

Mr Lukashenko, who turned 66 yesterday, is struggling to contain weeks of protests and strikes after winning an Aug 9 election his opponents say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud and has said the protests are backed from abroad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used a birthday phone call to invite Mr Lukashenko to visit Moscow, a sign of the Kremlin's willingness to back him as he grapples with the unrest and the threat of new Western sanctions.

Protesters streamed into central Minsk, carrying balloons, flowers and flags, in the afternoon. Belarus had a white-red-white flag for a brief period in the early 1990s and it has become a symbol of its anti-government protests.

Passing cars honked their horns in solidarity. Some women lay down in protest in front of a cordon of helmeted security forces.

Protesters then converged on Mr Lukashenko's residence, where there were security forces carrying shields at the ready, as well as water cannon and prisoner vans. A column of armoured military vehicles was driving towards the city centre, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

The police made sporadic detentions throughout the day, bundling people into prisoner vans. At least 125 people were detained, Russia's RIA news agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying.

Some protesters resisted arrest by what appeared to be plain-clothes officers, a witness said.

Earlier yesterday, video footage shared by local media showed women in traditional dress laying several pumpkins in front of the main government building, a folk custom intended to signal the rejection of a suitor.

One of the country's largest mobile operators, A1, said it had reduced the capacity of mobile Internet bandwidth at the government's request.

Belarus is Russia's closest former Soviet ally and its territory is an integral part of Moscow's European defence strategy. Nevertheless, Mr Lukashenko is seen in Moscow as a prickly partner.

In the biggest sign yet of Russia's willingness to intervene to prop up Mr Lukashenko, Mr Putin said last Thursday the Kremlin had set up a "reserve police force" at Mr Lukashenko's request, although it would be deployed only if necessary.

"It was agreed to hold a meeting in Moscow in the coming weeks," the Kremlin said in a statement after the leaders' call yesterday.

The European Union is gearing up to impose new sanctions on Belarus. Mr Lukashenko, in office for 26 years, threatened last Friday to cut off European transit routes across his country in retaliation.

Separately, France yesterday condemned an "arbitrary" crackdown on the media in Belarus after the accreditation of several journalists was withdrawn. "The arbitrary measures taken by the Belarusian authorities against journalists violate press freedom," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement.

He said the crisis in Belarus required "the establishment of an inclusive national dialogue", adding that "repressive measures against journalists cannot help".

The Belarusian authorities on Saturday withdrew the accreditation of journalists working for several foreign media agencies, including Agence France-Presse.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2020, with the headline 'Belarus leader gets birthday call from Putin amid pressure from demonstrators'. Subscribe