Retirees rally in Belarus against authoritarian president

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — About 3,000 retirees rallied in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for a third straight Monday to demand the resignation of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko as mass protests of a disputed election continue to roil the country.

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They marched through the streets of Minsk carrying flowers and chanting for Lukashenko to “Go away!” after the Aug. 9 balloting that was widely seen as rigged.

“How many grandmas should it take to oust one grandpa?” said one banner held by the protesters, referring to the 66-year-old president.

Pro-Lukashenko pensioners also rallied in the capital. Some 2,000 people — many of whom were men in military and security forces uniforms — came to Independence Square with national flags and banners that said, “For peace, prosperity and traditional values." Local media reported that some had been bused to the rally in what appeared to be an organized effort.

Lukashenko, who has run the country for 26 years, was declared the winner of the election with 80% of the vote. His main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, got only 10% and refused to recognize the results as valid, saying they had been manipulated.

Tens of thousands have been regularly protesting in Minsk and other cities since the vote, demanding that Lukashenko step down, with the largest rallies drawing up to 200,000 people.

The authorities tried to disperse the mostly peaceful crowds with truncheons, stun grenades and water cannons, and they have made mass detentions. On Monday, the country’s Interior Ministry threatened to use firearms against them “if need be,” saying the rallies “have become organized and extremely radical.” However, the demonstrations have continued despite the crackdown.

More than 50,000 people gathered in Minsk on Sunday for a traditional anti-government march, according to the Viasna human rights center, and smaller protests also took place in other cities. The Interior Ministry reported that 280 demonstrators were detained on Sunday, 215 of them in Minsk. The ministry estimated the crowd in the capital at 7,000.

According to Viasna, nearly 14,900 people have been detained since the election, and 91 of them have been declared political prisoners.

Several journalists who covered the protests for Belarusian online media outlets were sentenced Monday to 13-15 days in jail.

Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania after leaving the country in fear for her safety, has threatened to call a nationwide strike unless Lukashenko resigns, releases political prisoners and stops the crackdown on protesters.

“If our demands aren’t fulfilled by Oct. 25, the entire country will peacefully take to the streets,” she said in a statement last week. “On Oct. 26, a national strike of all enterprises will begin, all roads will be blocked, sales in state-owned stores will collapse.”

She said authorities have released Ilya Salei, a lawyer for her top associate, Maria Kolesnikova, from detention.

Kolesnikova was jailed last month on charges of undermining state security, which could bring a five-year prison term if convicted. Salei also was detained on the same charge.

On Monday, authorities released from jail Vitaly Shklyarov, a Russian political consultant who also holds Belarusian citizenship, and Lilia Vlasova, a prominent member of the opposition's Coordination Council formed to push for a transition of power. Both were detained earlier this year and will remain under house arrest.

The council, whose prominent members were either arrested or forced to leave the country, said in a statement that all those recently released “remain political prisoners” because the charges against them haven't been dropped.

“Only freeing of all political prisoners and ending persecution of people for their political views can be a step towards the beginning of resolving the political crisis,” the statement read.

“The authorities are trying to mobilize their supporters and divide the opposition by ramping up repressions against some and releasing the others,” independent political analyst Alexander Klaskousky said.

Neither approach works, he added.

“For the third month, the protests are not dying down and the political crisis deepens still, leaving the authorities less room to maneuver,” Klaskousky said.