Police in Belarus on Sunday arrested dozens of people in Minsk demonstrating against Alexander Lukashenko, leader of the former Soviet country, a witness said and several media outlets reported.
The witness said police used rubber bullets against the protesters. Interfax news agency said police had used tear gas to disperse the crowd near the Pushkinskaya metro station.
Mobile internet has been also down across the city, according to the witness.
Belarus is in a political crisis as tens of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets each week since an election in August, calling for Lukashenko to resign after 26 years in power. Lukashenko has rejected opposition accusations that the election was rigged in his favour.
Thousands of people have been arrested and rights groups say hundreds of detainees have reported being subjected to beatings and other abuse.
The street rallies were re-ignited following a death of a 31-year old anti-government protester Roman Bondarenko, who died in hospital on Thursday following what demonstrators said was a severe beating by security forces.
The interior ministry denied responsibility for Bondarenko’s death, saying he had been killed in a scuffle with civilians.
Security forces in Belarus detained dozens of protesters on Sunday and used force, including water cannon and batons, to break up crowds demanding a new presidential election, TV footage showed.
Footage published by local news outlets showed police officers wearing black balaclavas dragging protesters into unmarked black vans and beating them with their batons at a rally that drew thousands onto the streets of Minsk, the capital.
One sequence showed a police van unleashing a powerful jet of water from a cannon into crowds, visibly pushing them back.
Belarus, a former Soviet republic closely allied with Russia, has been rocked by street protests and strikes since authorities announced that veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko had won an Aug. 9 vote by a landslide.
People have since taken to the streets every week to demand that Lukashenko step down and allow for a new election to be held.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne condemned the crackdown.
“Violence is never the answer to the legitimate wishes of the people for democracy & freedom,” Champagne said in a tweet, adding he will be discussing the ongoing situation in Belarus with “key partners” during his upcoming trip to Europe.
🇨🇦 condemns the shocking & persistent repression against public protesters today in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Belarus?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Belarus</a>. Violence is never the answer to the legitimate wishes of the people for democracy & freedom.<br><br>I’ll be discussing the situation with key partners this week during my trip to Europe. <a href=”https://t.co/5bfnI5uPQh”>pic.twitter.com/5bfnI5uPQh</a>
Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager who has been in power since 1994, denies his win was the result of cheating.
Security forces have detained more than 13,000 people during a post-election crackdown, some of whom have been later freed.
Lukashenko’s key political opponents are either in jail or have fled abroad.
Sunday’s violence followed a meeting Lukashenko held on Saturday in a Minsk jail with detained opposition leaders, an unusual event that prompted some opposition activists to believe he was preparing to make concessions.
In a rare concession, two people who had taken part in the meeting with Lukashenko — businessman Yuri Voskresensky and Dmitry Rabtsevich, director of the Minsk office of PandaDoc software maker — were released late on Sunday, Belarus state television reported.
The United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions against a string of senior officials in Belarus accused of fraud and human rights abuses in the wake of the presidential election.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in Lithuania, has called for new elections and for all political prisoners to be freed.
“We will continue to march peacefully and persistently and demand what is ours: new free and transparent elections,” Tikhanovskaya wrote on her Telegram channel on Sunday.
Similar rallies were held in other cities across the country on Sunday.
If there is a glimmer of a silver lining for Canada, the U.K. and its allies as they watch the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in Belarus, it’s this: Russia probably doesn’t want another Ukraine — and it certainly can’t afford one.
The imposition of sanctions by both countries Tuesday against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, his son and six other Belarusian government officials in the wake of a disputed presidential election was the outcome of a delicate diplomatic dance that took weeks — even though some European nations chose to remain wallflowers.
Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said the Magnitsky-style sanctions would have had more punch if they’d been part of a wider multinational effort.
“In the case of Belarus, we have gone after the kingpins and we hit them where it hurts — their pocketbooks and ability to travel,” he said. “It would have been better if it were a G7 rather than just Canada and the U.K., but I guess it’s a reflection of EU solidarity.”
Some experts, meanwhile, say they think there’s a better-than-even chance that — although they’re not aimed at Russia — the economic penalties will prompt dialogue and lead to de-escalation.
“The Russians don’t want another Ukraine,” said Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior Canadian defence official now with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “They don’t want another problem on their border.”
While surface comparisons can be made between the situation in Belarus now and the six-year-old war in Ukraine, the geopolitical and economic landscapes are different, said Rasiulis, who once ran the Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy at the Department of National Defence.
Unlike the Ukrainians who took part in the anti-government, post-election protests in Kyiv that preceded the Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, those demonstrating in Minsk are not demanding closer association with the West or using much anti-Russian rhetoric. Belarusians are, primarily, rising up to demand good government.
And Moscow is in a weaker economic position now than it was in 2014 — in part because of the punishing sanctions imposed after its seizure of Crimea and armed intervention in eastern Ukraine.
For Belarus, getting hit by international sanctions following a presidential election is almost a regular thing.
In 2006, in reply to a heavy-handed response to protests, the U.S. and European Union levelled sanctions on dozens of Belarusian individuals and state-run companies. The EU eased up in 2016 when Lukashenko released political prisoners, but Washington has maintained an array of restrictions on Belarusian officials, including the president himself.
Penalizing the powerful
Robertson said the West has learned the hard way that targeted punishments, such as those imposed on Tuesday, will be more effective in the long run.
Experts at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and elsewhere have warned repeatedly over the past decade that targeting key Belarusian state-owned enterprises (such as chemical and petrochemical industries) and restricting the flow of capital would cause higher economic damage to the country as a whole and hurt many ordinary citizens.
The chances of political concessions appear to be higher when you hit the business elite and the cronies, says one recent study by the think-tank.
That report, which looked at Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe and ways to contain it, said efforts to promote a more liberal Belarus were unlikely to succeed and could provoke a strong response from Moscow.
Convincing the Kremlin
William Courtney and Michael Haltzel, two noted U.S. experts on Eastern Europe, argued in a RAND Corporation blog post last month that western countries should support mediation and calls for a new presidential election with credible international monitoring.
Russia, they said, is the key — and Moscow could be enticed to go along.
“A more democratic, Eastern Slavic state on Russia’s border might be difficult for the Kremlin to accept, but the European Union and the United States could make clear that any improvement in relations with Moscow would depend on it not intervening coercively in Belarus,” wrote Courtney, a former ambassador, and Haltzel, a former policy adviser to U.S. Senator (now Democratic presidential nominee) Joe Biden.
Canada, Latvia and other western nations have called for mediation, said Rasiulis — who is convinced Moscow is more interested in keeping Belarus in its orbit than in Lukashenko’s political survival.
The Institute for the Study of War, another prominent U.S. think-tank, has warned that some of the Russian army units which took part in a recent joint military exercise may not have returned home from Belarus last week as planned.
Rasiulis said that while it’s clear Russian is keeping the option of force on table, he has a hard time believing Moscow would launch a violent crackdown because of how it would alienate the people of Belarus.