Officials in Belarus detained the organizer of a strike at a major factory on Monday. The move is part of government efforts to suppress weeks of demonstrations. Protesters are demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years.
Lukashenko has dismissed the protesters as Western puppets and rejected European Union offers to help settle the political crisis. Government officials say Lukashenko won re-election in presidential elections on August 9. Opposition leaders reject the election results arguing that Lukashenko and his supporters cheated. The E.U. and the United States also criticized the election as neither free nor fair.
After launching a fierce operation on protesters in the first days after the vote, the government has sought to end the demonstrations with threats and the jailing of some activists.
Police on Monday detained Anatoly Bokun, who leads the strike committee at Belaruskali, a huge fertilizer factory in Soligorsk. He is facing a 15-day jail sentence on charges of organizing an unofficial protest.
The factory, a big money maker for Belarus, produces a fifth of the world’s potash fertilizer.
The Belaruskali strike committee said officials had halted a two-week long strike at the factory and that all its potash mines are now working. Gleb Sandras, a spokesman for the group, said that agents of Belarus’ State Security Committee had pressured workers to end the labor action.
Strikes at Belaruskali and other industrial centers have created problems for Lukashenko, who has kept most of the economy under government control. He depends on workers as his main base of support.
Belarus Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Nazarov confirmed Monday that the strikes caused a problem, but added that all major industrial centers are operating normally.
Bokun’s detention follows the arrests last week of strike leaders at two other industrial plants in the capital, Minsk. The organizer of a strike at the Grodno Azot, a major producer of nitrogen fertilizers, fled to neighboring Poland to avoid detention.
Seeking to limit the protests, the Belarusian government has opened a criminal investigation of the opposition Coordination Council. Government lawyers have accused its members of harming the country’s security. Last week, Belarusian courts gave 10-day jail sentences to two council members and ordered several others to appear for questioning. Among them is Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The European Union and United States have urged Belarusian officials to open talks with the opposition. Lukashenko has rejected the idea.
In an effort to win over critics and end the unrest, Lukashenko has spoken about the possibility of a constitutional reform that could lead to new presidential elections. On Monday, he dismissed the opposition’s demand that the country reestablish its former constitution.
In the days after the August 9 vote, the government detained nearly 7,000 people. Police used rubber bullets and other non-deadly weapons against the demonstrators. They also beat protesters, killing three and wounding hundreds of others.
During the next two weeks, police officers did little to stop the demonstrations. But last week, they returned to measures to end the dissent.
The Belarusian government also acted against the news media, expelling some foreign reporters from the country and barring the work of many Belarusian reporters. Two Moscow-based Associated Press reporters covering the recent protests in Belarus were deported to Russia on Saturday. In addition, the government told the AP’s Belarusian reporters that they were barred from working.
United States and EU officials have strongly condemned the Belarusian government’s actions against the media.
The opposition held another large demonstration on Sunday. An estimated 100,000 protesters gathered in Minsk, while many police officers watched.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman praised the bravery of the protesters. He urged Lukashenko to recognize the need for open talks between leadership, opposition forces and all Belarusians to, in his words, “bring about a peaceful solution to this current crisis.”
I’m Jonathan Evans.
Yuras Karmanau wrote this story for The Associated Press. George Grow adapted his story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
puppet – n. one whose actions are controlled by an outside force or influence
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