The political opposition in Belarus called for a nationwide general strike on Monday. The appeal is the latest in a series of efforts to force Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s long-time leader, from power. Opposition activists say cheating in the presidential election last August resulted in his reelection.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had threatened the general strike two weeks ago in an effort to energize the protest movement. She was Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election. Tikhanovskaya fled Belarus under what she described as fear for her family’s safety after the vote.
She demanded that he resign as president or face a general strike. She also demanded an end to violence against demonstrators and the release of political prisoners.
On Monday, the independent news website Tut.by published pictures of workers striking at several factories. The site also reported that many workers were detained at the Grodno Azot factory for joining the strike.
Nexta, a social media platform, published pictures of university students in Minsk blocking the entrance to the Belarus State University.
Some people could be seen gathered near the offices of the A1 telecommunication company in Minsk. They were holding the red and white flags of the opposition.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister said all the country's major industrial companies were operating normally. But Tikhanovskaya’s representative disputed the claim, adding that government officials are “nervous.”
The people’s ultimatum
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Belarus on Sunday. It was 11th straight weekend of large demonstrations aimed at ending Lukashenko’s 25 years in office.
Yet once again, government security troops and police were out in large numbers. The human rights group Vesna reported that more than 300 protesters were arrested.
Rights groups estimate more than 8,000 people have been detained since the protests began. A United Nations investigator reported last month that thousands of people had been "savagely beaten" and there were more than 500 reports of torture, which the government denies.
Lukashenko has refused to resign as president. He says he won the election with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Lukashenko also has support from Russia, which considers him a loyal ally along its western border.
A Russian government spokesman suggested that his country was growing concerned about the strike’s ability to affect Russia’s economy. He noted that the two economies worked together “at the highest levels.”
“For us, it’s extremely important how…reliably the Belarus factories function,” the spokesman added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided economic aid to Belarus and has said he will provide military assistance, if necessary. The head of one of Russia’s intelligence services was in Minsk last week and met with Lukashenko.
The United States and other Western governments have condemned the violence against demonstrators and supported actions meant to punish Lukashenko and his supporters. The European Union said it no longer considered Lukashenko as the head of Belarus.
French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among European leaders who have met with Tikhanovskaya directly.
In a separate development, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Lukashenko by phone on Saturday. It was the first high-level contact between the two countries since the political crisis in Belarus began.
The State Department said Pompeo voiced “U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus. He also demanded the release and the return of Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-American political observer who was arrested while visiting his parents in Belarus before the August elections.
Government officials have charged him with helping to organize illegal demonstrations. They say his actions are evidence of western interference in Belarus.
Last week, Lukashenko ordered the Belarusian-American released from detention and placed under house arrest. He reportedly had been suffering from health problems while in prison.
Belarus state television released a statement saying the country and Russia were ready to answer any threats “jointly.”
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words In This Story
platform – n. a website that allows someone to tell a large number of people about an idea, news and information or a product
savagely – adj. with extreme cruelty
reliably – adj. with certainty
function – v. to use, make or do
aspiration - n. a hope or goal for the future