Belarus opposition sets up council to trigger power transition

The nascent political opposition in Belarus set up a council inside the country on Tuesday in attempt to start the process of a negotiated transition of power. But President Alexander Lukashenko denounced it as an attempt to seize power 10 days after an election that has triggered mass demonstrations.

Many of Belarus’s major opposition figures are either in jail or in exile, including presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled the country after the vote her supporters say she won. Olga Kovalkova, Tikhanovskaya’s representative at a press conference to launch the new opposition council, said she expected Tikhanovskaya would soon return to Minsk, to act as a guarantor in a negotiated transition of power. “We are operating solely through legal means,” Kovalkova said. “The situation is critical. The authorities have no choice but to come to dialogue. The situation will only get worse.” 

Earlier, in televised remarks to his Security Council of top brass, Lukashenko described the planned opposition council as “an attempt to seize power” and promised “appropriate measures”. Since official results declared him the election winner with 80% of the vote, Lukashenko seems to have underestimated the strength of public anger in a country suffering economic hardship and a coronavirus epidemic that he has dismissed. At least two protesters have been killed and thousands detained.

There have been increasing signs that the burly former Soviet collective farm boss is losing his grip on the country he has ruled for 26 years, with workers going on strike at state factories long seen as bastions of his support. After videos appeared on the internet showing some police officers throwing their uniforms into dustbins, the Interior Ministry acknowledged on Tuesday that some police had quit. “We will not judge the small proportion of police officers who have today left the service out of personal convictions,” it said in a statement. It pleaded for others to stay at their post, saying the public would be left unprotected if “the entire police force today takes off its badges”.

Among senior figures to speak against the government was Pavel Latushko, who served as ambassador to Poland, France and Spain under Lukashenko before becoming head of the country’s most prestigious state theatre last year. He was sacked after expressing outrage at the abuse of detained protesters. “In the life of every person there comes a line that cannot be crossed,” he told Reuters on Tuesday in Minsk. “That moment came for me when I saw people coming out of prisons, talking about the violence against them. I became ashamed.”

The entire troupe of actors resigned en masse on Tuesday in solidarity at Latushko’s Janka Kupala National Theatre, where Culture Minister Yuri Bondar met them on stage. One by one, the actors slammed down a resignation letter and shouted “go away”. Hundreds of protesters outside cheered as the actors emerged.

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