MINSK, Belarus — A day after the leader of Belarus, often called “Europe’s last dictator,” claimed a landslide reelection victory, his capital slipped into mayhem late Monday as protesters barricaded streets and riot police officers beat back crowds of demonstrators with violent baton charges, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
The Ministry of Interior, which controls police forces loyal to President Alexander G. Lukashenko, reported late Monday that one protester had died during a confrontation with security forces from an “unidentified explosive device” that detonated in his hand and caused injuries “incompatible with life.”
Authorities described what began as peaceful protests as “riots” and vowed to crush demonstrators who have taken to the streets for the last two nights in Minsk, the capital, and in towns across the country.
Struggling to contain public fury over a fraud-tainted election that gave Lukashenko his sixth term in office, the government Monday shut down subway stations, sealed off roads and poured armed riot police officers into the center of Minsk.
By nightfall, security forces and protesters were clashing violently in the capital, and in Brest, a city to the west of Belarus on the border with Poland, as well as in several other towns.
The unidentified protester killed Monday is the first confirmed death during the postelection demonstrations. Another protester was reported to have been killed Sunday when a police vehicle drove into him, but officials denied this.
Riot police officers in full body armor blocked a busy Minsk avenue leading to a war memorial where thousands of protesters had gathered Sunday to denounce Lukashenko’s reelection. He claimed a resounding victory with 80% of the vote, but the results were denounced as fraudulent by both the opposition and international governments.
As darkness fell Monday, scores of people who tried to reach the memorial were arrested and journalists in the area reported being targeted by rubber bullets fired by unknown security agents.
In a nearby downtown area, protesters swarmed across another busy thoroughfare but were quickly driven away by charging riot police. Dozens more were arrested, including some people who had merely been walking nearby.
“These are not arrests, these are kidnappings, random peaceful people are just grabbed off the street,” said Yuri Puchila, 29, an artist.
Lukashenko’s tight grip on a loyal security apparatus has in the past quickly curbed postelection protests. But this time, Puchila said, is different, because the scale of fraud in Sunday’s vote was so big and obvious.
“I don’t think this will end with nothing. People will go on strike. I, for instance, won’t pay my taxes anymore,” he said.
Violent clashes were also reported in Brest, with demonstrators blocking roads with concrete benches and throwing broken paving stones at riot police officers, who responded by firing stun grenades.
Internet service, which had been widely used by Lukashenko’s opponents to organize and to share news of polling irregularities and police brutality, was shut down.
After protests first broke out Sunday evening, triggered by the release of a preliminary vote count that gave Lukashenko an implausibly wide margin of victory, the president vowed Monday to crush unrest and prevent Belarus staging a repeat of the 2014 uprising in Ukraine.
“We will not allow the country to be torn apart,” Lukashenko said in comments carried by Belarus’ state news agency, Belta. “As I have warned, there will be no Maidan, no matter how much anyone wants one,” he added, referring to Ukrainian protests in Kyiv’s Maidan square that ultimately ousted a president. “People need to quiet down and calm down.”
The principal opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who, according to partial official results, garnered only 10% of the vote, said at a news conference Monday in Minsk that she believed the results had been falsified and that she, not Lukashenko, had won. She stopped short of urging supporters to take to the streets but vowed to challenge the results.
Tikhanovskaya vanished for several hours Monday, with supporters claiming that she had been taken captive at the Central Election Commission, where she had gone to challenge the results. The head of Belarus’ secret police, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB, was later quoted by news agencies as saying that his agency had foiled an assassination attempt on the opposition leader.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the United States is “deeply concerned about the conduct” of Sunday’s election, which he said “was not free and fair.” He urged the government to refrain from the use of force and to release those wrongfully detained.
Authorities in Belarus said that 1,000 people had been detained in Minsk during Sunday night’s clashes and another 2,000 elsewhere in the country. More than 50 citizens, as well as 39 police officers, were injured, officials said.
Lukashenko first took power after an election in 1994, the last time Belarus held a poll judged reasonably free and fair by outside observers. He showed no inclination Monday to bow to opposition demands for a recount of the votes cast Sunday or to negotiate with rivals he mocked as “sheep” led astray by foreigners.
The European Union did not denounce the election outright but did issue a statement saying that “Belarusian people now expect their votes to be counted accurately.”Among a handful of countries that endorsed the election results unequivocally were China, which is building a huge industrial zone near Minsk, and Russia, Belarus’ powerful eastern neighbor.
Russia’s relations with Lukashenko have soured dramatically in recent weeks, particularly after Belarus in late July arrested what it said were 33 Russian mercenaries intent on disrupting the election. But the two countries now seem eager to patch up their frayed alliance. Belarus on Monday released three Russian journalists detained for reporting in the country without proper accreditation.
Whatever Lukashenko’s failings in Russian eyes, the Kremlin still views the veteran 65-year-old autocrat as preferable to his rivals, who would like to see better relations with the West.
In a congratulatory message to Lukashenko, President Vladimir Putin, who described Russia and Belarus as “brotherly nations,” restated his desire for “closer cooperation within the Union State,” a stalled 1990s project that would effectively merge the two countries and one that Lukashenko has resisted reviving.
State-controlled Russian television has in the past often scoffed at Lukashenko, a former state farm manager, as a buffoon and ingrate. Its coverage sharply shifted Monday to paint him as a resolute leader fighting to defend his country against the machinations of Western intelligence services.
This matched Lukashenko’s own account of the mayhem that has gripped much of his country. On Monday, he claimed that protests, along with the country’s internet shut-off, had been engineered from abroad, accusing Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic of “controlling” demonstrators.Poland, Belarus’ neighbor to the west, infuriated Lukashenko on Monday by calling for an emergency summit of European leaders to discuss how to respond to what it denounced as a fraudulent election and needlessly violent police action against protesters.
Britain condemned the election as “seriously flawed” and the Czech Republic said it “cannot be labeled free and democratic.”
The European Union imposed tough sanctions on Belarus in 2004, after an earlier round of repression, but lifted most of these in 2016, hoping that Lukashenko might moderate his autocratic tendencies.
With those hopes now in tatters after the flawed election and the violence that followed, pressure is growing for a new wave of sanctions.
But Lukashenko could be saved by Hungary, whose own authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, visited Minsk in June and called for an end to all efforts to punish Belarus. EU sanctions require the assent of all member countries, meaning that Hungary could block any push to take action against Belarus.