KYIV – Crowds of retirees marched Monday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, marking 100 days since mass protests began and became an almost-daily feature of life in the country after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won his sixth term in a widely disputed election.
More than 2,000 pensioners were estimated to have taken part in the rally, demanding the resignation of Lukashenko and a halt to the government's violent crackdown on dissent. They carried flowers and red and white flags that have become a symbol of protest.
“Lukashenko, you and my children will remember this disgrace,” said one of the banners the retirees carried.
Such protests have roiled Belarus ever since the Aug. 9 election handed Lukashenko a crushing victory over his widely popular opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She and her supporters refused to recognize the result, saying the vote was riddled with fraud.
Both sides seem to be locked into a continuing cycle of protest and crackdowns, with the opposition turning out thousands in regular marches while the government uses arrests and other intimidation tactics to quash any threats to Lukashenko's 26-year hold on power. A nationwide strike called by the opposition did not catch on, although students boycotted classes for a few days.
Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the largest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies and detained thousands, beating many of them brutally.
According to human rights advocates, over 19,000 people have been detained since the election. At least four people are reported to have died as the result of the crackdown.
Retirees at Monday's march in Minsk carried portraits of Raman Bandarenka, a 31-year-old opposition supporter who died last week after reportedly being beaten by security forces.
“Why was (Raman) killed?” they chanted, demanding a criminal investigation into his death.
Police didn't interfere with the march but harshly dispersed a demonstration in Bandarenka's memory on Sunday, using stun grenades, tear gas and clubs and beating up protesters in shops and restaurants where they were hiding from the crackdown.
The Interior Ministry said over 700 people were detained Sunday across the country, while the Viasna human rights center put the figure at 1,291.
The continued clampdown elicited international outrage. The European Union has imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several dozen officials over their role in it earlier this year and again condemned it following Bandarenka's death.
Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accused Belarusian authorities of “brutal police violence."
“This must end,” he said. “The German government won’t forget how people there are mistreated almost daily on the streets, and we will also not forget those who are kidnapped daily and exposed to even worse abuse behind prison walls.”
Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania after fleeing Belarus for her safety, called on the West to “act faster."
“Belarusians need help right now,” she tweeted Monday.
“Expand the sanction list (and) impose economic restrictions. Help those repressed (and) injured. Support media (and) human rights defenders. Stop investing in banks (and) state-owned companies. Start international investigation and tribunal,” she wrote.