Opposition urges Belarusians to defy “colossal pressure” and back strike

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya delivers a statement next to Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic (not pictured) in Bratislava, Slovakia

Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya appealed to Belarusians on Tuesday to throw their support behind a national strike to oust President Alexander Lukashenko, but the government insisted that companies were working as normal.

On the second day of the strike she has said will paralyse the country, Tsikhanouskaya said employees at a string of major companies were refusing to work their shifts but coming under “colossal pressure” from the authorities.

Eleven weeks after running against Lukashenko in a presidential election that the opposition and Western governments say was rigged, Tsikhanouskaya – who fled to Lithuania after the vote – is facing a critical test of her ability to mobilise popular support.

“If we help the factories go on strike, they will help us finish what we started,” she said on social media. “Remember: every active peaceful step brings us closer to ending the violence, winning freedom for political prisoners and finally holding new, fair elections.”

Photos and videos posted on Twitter showed protests at high schools and several universities and workers holding placards and opposition red-and-white flags outside a telecoms company in Minsk.

But the strike calls have so far failed to shut down state enterprises in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people.

Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko said the situation was “absolutely calm”, and attacked what he called “direct appeals to cause harm to our country”.

A representative of heavy vehicle manufacturer MZKT, contacted by us, said: “We have no strikes here. Everything is fine, we’re all working.”

Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and drawing on support from his key ally, Russia, ignored an ultimatum from Tsikhanouskaya to step down by Sunday and since then has stepped up his rhetoric against the opposition.

The official news agency Belta quoted him as saying that some people had become radicalised and “crossed the red line” in recent days.

“What has been launched against us is not an information war but a terrorist war on separate fronts. We must stop it,” he said.

Students who broke the law should be expelled from their universities and made to join the army or be thrown on to the streets, he said.

The interior ministry said more than 500 people had been arrested at anti-government protests on Monday, the first day of the strike. Some 16,000 have been detained during protests since the disputed Aug. 9 election.

A lawyer for Vitali Shkliarov, a U.S. citizen who had been detained in Belarus for nearly three months, said he had been released and allowed to leave the country to join his wife and child.

Lawyer Anton Gashinsky said Shkliarov, who is recovering from COVID-19, was still under investigation and would return to the country. He said the release of the political consultant was a direct result of a phone call on Saturday in which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Lukashenko to free him.

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