Belarus president remains defiant as protest strikes grow

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Workers with old Belarus national flags, one of them holds a poster reads “Requirement # 1 Go away!” gather during a rally at the Minsk Motor Plant in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Some thousands of factory workers have taken to the streets of Minsk demanding the resignation of Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — More workers in Belarus joined a widening strike Tuesday to press for the resignation of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has extended his 26-year rule in an election the opposition says was rigged.

Lukashenko has refused to step down following a harsh police crackdown on peaceful protesters in the days after the Aug. 9 vote. In a move intended to secure the loyalty of law enforcement agencies amid the demonstrations and strikes, he signed a decree honoring over 300 police officers for their service.

The opposition denounced the awards as a national insult following the suppression of protests with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. Nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least two people died.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, insisted the awards weren’t linked to the crackdown that has galvanized public anger and drawn international criticism. In a tacit recognition of a split in the ranks, the ministry’s spokeswoman said in a statement that some officers had resigned under pressure and threats from the opposition. She didn’t say how many quit.

Lukashenko’s actions prompted thousands — including workers at state-controlled factories and plants, actors and broadcasters — to walk off the job.

The prospect of a nationwide shutdown was an unprecedented challenge to Lukashenko, who has relied on blue-collar workers as his base of support. During Monday’s visit to a factory in Minsk he was heckled and jeered by workers shouting “Go away!”

“The authorities should understand that they are losing control,” head of an independent miners’ union Yuri Zakharov told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Only Lukashenko’s resignation and punishment of those in charge of rigging and beatings can calm us down. The strike will continue and grow until he steps down.”

The labor action that began Monday quickly grew to several major industrial plants, including a factory that accounts for a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer output.

In the city of Soligorsk, home to the giant Belaruskali factory, strike organizer Anatoly Bokun said workers at all potash mines have halted work. The factory, which employs 16,000, is Belarus’ major cash earner.

“They are putting pressure on us and threatening us with mass dismissals, but we will not return to work until Lukashenko steps down,” Bokun said as thousands of workers joined a rally.

“They have stolen our choice,” said 32-year-old Gleb Sandros. “What else can we do to stop the authorities’ arbitrary and lawless action?”

Belarus’ ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, became the first government official to challenge Lukashenko on Saturday when he posted a video supporting the protests before handing in his resignation.

He was joined Tuesday by the ambassador to Spain, Pavel Pustavy, who posted a statement on Facebook urging authorities to recount the vote and prosecute those who beat protesters.

Some workers at state-controlled television and the troupe of the nation’s most prominent theater also joined the protests.

Nearly 1,000 people gathered in front of the Janka Kupala National Theater in Minsk to support members of its troupe who quit en masse after its director, Pavel Latushko, was fired for siding with protesters. They heckled and jeered the culture minister who visited the theater and then threw a stack of resignation letters at his feet.

On Tuesday, Latushko, who was culture minister and then ambassador to France before taking the theater director’s job, emerged from a meeting of opposition activists who discussed forming a “coordination council” to negotiate a transition of power. He later told reporters of the growing dissent among public servants, many of whom support the protests.

“We are tired of law enforcement agencies effectively running the country,” he said. “The coordination council must help return the country to the rule of law.”

On Tuesday, workers searching a wooded area found the body of Konstantin Shishmakov, who headed a small military history museum in Volkovysk near the Polish border. He was a member of an election commission and exposed alleged falsifications in the Aug. 9 balloting. Local police said they found no evidence of a crime, but the death has raised suspicions of foul play.

Several hundred demonstrators also gathered outside a detention center in Minsk where the husband of Lukashenko’s top challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was being held to cheer him on his 42nd birthday. Tsikhanouskaya joined the race after the jailing of her husband, Sergei, a popular opposition blogger who had wanted to run for president.

Last week, Tsikhanouskaya left for neighboring Lithuania in a move her campaign said was made under duress. On Monday, she declared her readiness to act as a national leader to facilitate a new election. Her top associate, Maria Kolesnikova, said the opposition’s coordination council should help create the mechanism for a peaceful transition of power.

Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former state farm director who has been in office since 1994, described the opposition council’s meeting as an attempt to grab power and warned that the government will take “adequate” steps to “cool those hotheads.”

Western officials refused to recognize the election as free or fair and criticized the violent crackdown.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed-door discussion of Belarus on Tuesday, and European Union leaders are to discuss it on Wednesday.

The EU has anxiously watched a response from Russia, which has a union agreement with Belarus envisaging close political, economic and military ties. Lukashenko spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin twice over the weekend and said that the Russian leader promised him security assistance if Belarus needs it.

In an apparent bid to persuade Moscow to offer more energetic support, Lukashenko has accused NATO of bolstering its forces on Belarus’ borders and harboring aggressive plans — claims the alliance has dismissed. He also accused his opponents of planning to annul the union treaty with Russia and ban the Russian language that is widely spoken and serves as a second state language along with Belarusian. The opposition rejected those allegations.

Russia has remained tight-lipped and said nothing about possible security assistance. Putin on Tuesday had phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel to discuss developments in Belarus.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said she “underlined that the Belarusian government must refrain from violence against peaceful protesters, immediately release political prisoners and enter into a national dialogue with the opposition and (civil) society to overcome the crisis.”

According to Macron’s office, he underscored the EU’s “determination to play a constructive role at the side of Belarus people so that the violence toward the population stops immediately” and try to help expedite a political solution.

Terse readouts from the Kremlin said Putin underlined the need to refrain from foreign interference in Belarus’ affairs. Lukashenko’s office later said Putin called to inform him about conversations with Merkel and Macron, but the Kremlin didn’t report the conversation.

Asked about developments in the country, President Donald Trump said “it doesn’t seem like there’s too much democracy there in Belarus.”

“But we are speaking to lots of people and we’ll be speaking at the appropriate time to Russia and we’ll be speaking to other people that are involved,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.

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