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Belarus opposition leader decries "rotting system" as strikes ramp up

Pro-democracy protests grow in Belarus
Pro-democracy protests grow in Belarus 01:11

Minsk — Protesters rallied outside a prison in Minsk on Tuesday where the husband of Belarus's main opposition figure was being held, as she denounced a "rotting system" during a 10th day of demonstrations over a disputed election.

Several hundred people gathered outside the walls of the detention center to mark the 42nd birthday of Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger who was imprisoned alongside other rivals of President Alexander Lukashenko ahead of the August 9 election.

The 65-year-old strongman is under mounting pressure to step down after days of protests and strikes over his claim to have won a sixth term in the vote and a brutal police crackdown on post-election protests.

Lukashenko was jeered by workers at a state-run factory on Monday but has defied calls to hold a new election and on Tuesday handed out awards to 300 members of the security services, who have been accused of abusing arrested protesters.

"One person controls everything"

At the detention center where Tikhanovsky is being held, protesters holding red-and-white balloons in the colors of the opposition clapped and chanted "Happy Birthday."

Tikhanovsky's wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was allowed to run in his place but fled to neighbouring Lithuania after claiming that Lukashenko had rigged the election to secure his official 80 percent of the vote.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally held to support him in central Minsk, on August 16, 2020. SIARHEI LESKIEC

Belarusian investigators have accused Tikhanovsky of inciting "social hostility" and calls to use violence against law enforcement officers. In a video message, Tikhanovskaya said her husband was spending his birthday in prison accused of "a crime he did not commit".

"All of this blatant lawlessness and injustice shows how this rotting system works, in which one person controls everything, one person who has kept the country in fear for 26 years, one person who robbed Belarusians of their choice," she said.

Domestic pressure mounts

Belarus saw its largest street demonstrations over the weekend since it gained independence from the Soviet Union, with more than 100,000 people taking to the streets of the capital to demand Lukashenko stand down after 26 years in power.

The police crackdown saw more than 6,700 people arrested, hundreds wounded and left two people dead. Belarusian police confirmed Tuesday that a third protester had died, but details were not immediately available.

People detained during recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, show bruises they say were sustained during beatings as they leave the Okrestina prison in Minsk, August 14, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

Authorities have gradually released detainees — many emerging with horrific accounts of beatings and torture.

In spite of the mass-arrests and violence the protests have continued, and the widespread strikes were still ramping up on Tuesday.

More state-controlled factories joined the walk-outs, including a huge potash factory that has been one of the government's biggest sources of cash income for years. The plant in Soligorsk is the world's fifth largest producer of potash, a key component in agricultural fertilizers.

Workers of the potash producer Belaruskali protest against presidential election results near Salihorsk
Workers of the potash producer Belaruskali attend a meeting to prepare for a strike action and a protest against presidential election results near Soligorsk, Belarus August 17, 2020. VASILY FEDOSENKO/REUTERS

Tikhanovskaya's ally Maria Kolesnikova on Tuesday visited the National Academy Theater in Minsk to show support for staff who resigned after director and former culture minister Pavel Latushko was forced from his post for publicly calling for new elections and Lukashenko's resignation.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper announced it was unable to print its Tuesday edition focusing on historic protests over the weekend and said it had secured another printer that would produce its print edition a day late. 

Tikhanovskaya, 37, has demanded the authorities release all detainees, remove security forces from the streets and open criminal cases against those who ordered the crackdown. 

Presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) and her ally Maria Kolesnikova hold a press conference the day after Belarus' presidential election in Minsk, August 10, 2020. SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty

She has said she will organize new elections if Lukashenko steps down and the opposition has formed a Coordination Council to ensure a transfer of power, which was due to convene on Tuesday.

Foreign pressure mounts

European Union leaders have announced they will hold an emergency video summit on Belarus on Wednesday and both the United States and Britain this week voiced concerns over the elections and the crackdown.

During a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday said Belarus must stop dispersing peaceful protests with force, release detainees and negotiate with Lukashenko's critics.

Authorities must "enter into a national dialogue with the opposition and society to overcome the crisis," Merkel said, according to a spokesperson.

Russia and Belarus have very close ties and Lukashenko has reached out to Putin for assistance in the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, welcomes his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko to a meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on December 29, 2018.  KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

The Kremlin has said it is ready to step in if necessary through the CSTO military alliance between six ex-Soviet states, but it is unclear how much support Putin is willing to give to Lukashenko, who in recent years has often played off Moscow against the West.

Russian news agencies said Putin also spoke Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron. According to one Russian report, Putin told Macron that any foreign interference or pressure on Lukashenko would be unacceptable.

Belarus was also being discussed at a closed UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, CBS News' Pamela Falk reported from UN headquarters. The topic was put on the agenda at the request of the U.S. and Estonia, but it would not be discussed as a separate topic, two Western diplomats told CBS News, because of Russia's objection. 

Both the U.S. and Estonia want to make the point that the world is watching, a Security Council diplomat told Falk on background, even if nothing can happen at the UN to directly intervene, given Russia's veto power on the Council.

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