Police crack down on protests as Belarus leader set for election win

Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk while protesters clapped, shouted "victory" and honked their car horns in solidarity with the opposition.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (photo credit: REUTERS)
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MINSK, Aug 9 - Belarus police fired stun grenades and began detentions in a crackdown on protests that erupted as President Alexander Lukashenko was set to claim another election win on Sunday in the face of the biggest challenge in years to his grip on power.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk while protesters clapped, shouted "victory" and honked their car horns in solidarity with the opposition.
Police blocked off streets and at least 10 people were detained in one spot in Minsk, a Reuters witness said, while local media reported detentions and clashes between police and protesters in the capital and other cities.
One man was thrown out of a police vehicle in Minsk and lay lifeless on the ground, a Reuters witness said. The government said in a statement that no protesters had been injured.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, the authoritarian Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994 but has battled a wave of anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.
State-approved exit polls showed him winning 79.7% of the vote while his main opponent Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to lead rallies against him, received 6.8%.
Tikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995.
"I hope that law enforcement officials will come to their senses and switch to the people's side, then the night in Minsk will end without blood," said Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a barred candidate who threw her support behind Tikhanouskaya.
Military vehicles, soldiers and police had patrolled the capital Minsk in apparent readiness for a new crackdown. The internet and social media networks experienced disruption.
A harsh response to new protests could hurt Lukashenko's attempts to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.
Tikhanouskaya's rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and on Sunday she arrived at a polling station with hundreds of supporters chanting her name.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people were detained in the crackdown ahead of the election, including independent election observers and members of Tikhanouskaya's campaign team.
After casting his vote, Lukashenko denied imposing repressive measures as "fake news or far-fetched accusations" and said he did not regard Tikhanouskaya's camp as a threat.
"They are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them," he said.
Long queues of voters formed outside some polling stations in Minsk and also outside the Belarusian embassies in Moscow and Kyiv for people casting their ballot abroad.
"It is unbearable to have him in power for so many years. The man should understand himself that he must just leave," said Yuri Kanifatov in Moscow, who voted against Lukashenko.
Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability but criticized by the West as dictatorial, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers to destabilize the country.
"Lukashenko a priori made it clear that he intends to retain his power at any cost. The question remains what the price will be," said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Wedded to a Soviet-style economic model, Lukashenko has struggled to raise incomes and living standards in recent years. He also faced anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he dismissed as a "psychosis" while suggesting drinking vodka and playing ice hockey as remedies.

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