MINSK – Authorities in Belarus detained a leader of striking factory workers and threatened demonstrators with criminal charges Friday in a bid to stop the massive post-election protests challenging the country's authoritarian president, who accused the United States of fomenting the unrest.
Investigators also summoned several opposition activists for questioning as part of a criminal probe into a council they created with the goal of coordinating a transition of power for the ex-Soviet nation that President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist for 26 years.
Protesters are demanding that Lukashenko resign, accusing him of stealing a sixth term in office by rigging the country’s Aug. 9 presidential election. Many are fed up with sinking living standards and the lack of opportunities under Lukashenko, and their disgust grew deeper as he dismissed the coronavirus pandemic and refused to order a lockdown.
Unfazed by government threats, thousands of demonstrators on Friday formed “chains of solidarity” across the capital of Minsk before marching to the central Independence Square as post-election protests entered their 13th straight day. Motorists honked and slowed down to block traffic in a show of solidarity.
“I have come through the hell, they were beating me without stop for two days,” said Artyom Progin, an artist whose legs have black marks from police clubs. “Bruises and scratches will heal, but the memory of these crimes will last.”
The 65-year-old leader blamed the U.S. for instigating the protests that started on election night and intensified after officials declared him the winner with 80% of the vote.
“The U.S. is planning and directing everything, and the Europeans are playing up to it,” Lukashenko said while visiting a state farm Friday.
The United States on Thursday described the Belarus presidential election as neither free nor fair and urged authorities to engage in a dialogue with the opposition council. European Union leaders are preparing sanctions against Belarusian officials.
Speaking to agricultural workers, Lukashenko bluntly rejected Western offers to mediate between his government and the opposition, telling the U.S. and the EU to mind their own business.
“They should sort out their own affairs first," he said.
Belarus’ Interior Ministry said Friday that Yevgeny Bokhvalov, who organized a strike at the huge Minsk Automobile Plant, was detained, but gave no further details. Workers at the factory manufacturing heavy trucks have been on strike since Monday to push for Lukashenko's resignation, as have workers at many other industrial plants across the country.
The strike committee at the giant Belaruskali potash factory in Soligorsk said agents from state security agency KGB detained one of the organizers of the walkout, Dmitry Kudelevich, but he managed to escape through a toilet window and fled to neighboring Ukraine.
The labor action has presented a tough challenge for Lukashenko, who has relied on blue-collar workers as his core support base for decades. He has warned that strikers could be fired and ordered law enforcement to protect factory managers from opposition pressure.
“Most of all, Lukashenko fears the factory workers’ protest, so he tries to scare strike organizers and stop the strikes,” said Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the strike-organizing committee at the Minsk Tractor Plant.
Dylevsky, a member of the opposition Coordination Council, was summoned for interrogation along with another council member, lawyer Maxim Znak.
“Even if they arrest us, it will not stop the protests and make Lukashenko look legitimate,” Dylevsky said.
The Prosecutor General’s office has opened a criminal probe into the creation of the Coordination Council, charging it violated the constitution and threatened national security. The council members have rejected the accusations and insist their actions fully comply with Belarusian law.
The council has called for a new presidential election organized by a newly formed election commission, as well as for an investigation into the protest crackdown and compensation for victims of police violence.
In a bid to stem the daily demonstrations, Belarus Prosecutor General Alexander Konyuk on Friday warned that participants in unsanctioned protests could face criminal charges.
During the first four days of post-election protests, police detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least three protesters died and scores displayed serious bruises from police beatings. On Friday, the state Investigative Committee opened an inquiry into the claims that police raped women in custody.
The ferocious crackdown fueled massive outrage and swelled protesters’ ranks, forcing authorities to change tactics and stop breaking up crowds. But after standing back for several days, police again beefed up their presence on the streets and deployed outside major factories that have joined the strike.
On Friday, Lukashenko once again derided the opposition as Western puppets and vowed to take action quickly.
“You shouldn’t worry about that. It’s my problem that I must solve. And believe me, we will solve it in the nearest days,” he said.
To counter the opposition pressure, thousands of Lukashenko's supporters have rallied in Minsk and other cities over the past days.
“The country needs stability and peace, and they are trying to enforce a revolution on us,” said 46-year-old electrician Dmitry Shparzh who attended Friday's rally in Minsk. “How should Lukashenko react? Naturally, he is moving to restore order.”
Hundreds of state television employees have also gone on strike this week, shaking the government’s control of the media. Lukashenko acknowledged Friday that several Russian TV journalists were working at Belarusian state TV to fill the gap.
Seeking to tighten government control over information, the state publishing house has stopped printing top independent newspapers, the Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing equipment malfunction.
“It effectively amounts to the introduction of censorship,” said Narodnaya Volya editor Iosif Seredich.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s leading election challenger and the wife of an opposition blogger who has been jailed since May, urged factory workers to continue striking in a video released Friday.
Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus for Lithuania after contesting the election results that gave her 10% of the vote, spoke Friday at a news conference in Vilnius, calling for a new election. Her lawyer on Friday submitted a formal appeal to Belarus' Supreme Court to try to get the Aug. 9 vote invalidated.
“New fair, free and transparent elections must be held,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “The people of Belarus have woken up, and they do not want to live in fear and lies anymore.”
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the political turmoil in Belarus at https://www.apnews.com/Belarus