In a country where crackdowns on dissent are routine, Belarus police and protesters clashed in the capital Minsk and the city of Brest Sunday night over rising discontent with the authoritarian rule of the country’s longtime leader, who recently sought a sixth term.
Sunday’s vote in the ex-Soviet nation pitted President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on Belarus since 1994, against four others. The campaign has generated the country’s biggest opposition protests in years. Opposition supporters say they suspect election officials will manipulate the results of Sunday’s vote to give the 65-year-old Lukashenko a sixth term.
The head of the Central Elections Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, said early Monday that partial results from some regions showed Lukashenko with a crushing lead, getting more than 90% of the vote in some districts.
Lukashenko himself was defiant as he voted earlier on Sunday.
“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said. “Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen.”
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Belarusians have been weary of the country’s deteriorating economy as well as the president’s cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic.
Police presence in Minsk was heavy throughout the day and in the evening police set up checkpoints on the city’s perimeter to check residence permits, apparently worried that protesters would come from other cities.
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About 1,000 protesters gathered near the obelisk honoring Minsk as a World War II “hero city,” where police clashed with them, beating some with truncheons and later using flash-bang grenades to try to disperse them. Protesters later tried to build barricades with trash containers.
Protests also broke out in the major cities of Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Vitebsk and police fired tear gas at the demonstrators in Brest, news reports said.
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There was no official information on the number of arrests or people injured, but Ales Bilyatsky of the Viasna human rights group told The Associated Press that he believed there were several hundred.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.