Tsikhanouskaya Calls For Belarusian Dialogue As Clampdown, Protests Continue

MINSK -- Authorities in Belarus handed down jail sentences against opposition leaders and tightened their clampdown against weeks of unprecedented protests on August 25, but demonstrations continued and the exiled challenger in this month's disputed election vowed that the country's pro-democracy movement "will not be broken."

Around 5,000 people gathered on Independence Square in Minsk for an evening rally in the capital to mark the country's 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union -- a former Belarusian holiday that was abolished by five-term President Alyaksandr Lukashenka after he came to power 26 years ago.

Many shouted "Freedom for political prisoners!" and "Lukashenka, resign!" while others waved banned red-and-white flags that have long been a symbol of opposition to his regime. After the protest dispersed, police in paddy wagons detained several people off the streets, apparently for showing red-and-white symbols.

Presidential challenger Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya told European lawmakers via video link earlier on August 25 that Belarusians will continue their pursuit of democracy.

"Belarusians have shown over the past two weeks that they will not give up" despite repression, intimidation by physical force, and threats of imprisonment, Tsikhanouskaya told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

She was speaking from Lithuania, where she fled following the August 9 presidential election amid reports that she and her family were threatened.

Later on August 25, Belarus's Supreme Court rejected Tsikhanouskaya's challenge against the official results of the vote, which showed 80 percent support for a sixth term for Lukashenka.

The 65-year-old Belarusian leader, who has ruled the country since 1994, has shown his determination to stay in power despite more than two weeks of demonstrations against his officially declared reelection and increasing international condemnation.

Two members of Tsikhanouskaya's Coordination Council presidium were sentenced to 10-day jail terms on August 25 after their arrests the previous day for organizing unsanctioned protests.

Syarhey Dyleuski, a strike organizer and a member of the council’s presidium, was sentenced for organizing an unauthorized protest rally at the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ).

Volha Kovalkova, Tsikhanouskaya's main representative in Belarus, was later sentenced on a similar charge.

Lukashenka has said the Coordination Council, set up last week with the stated aim of opening negotiations with the government, is an illegal attempt to seize power.

Authorities have stepped up detentions and prosecutions of prominent members of the council since a criminal case was launched against it on August 21.

Another council member, theater director and former Culture Minister Paval Latushka, was questioned by the Investigative Committee on August 25 but not detained. He vowed to continue his work for the opposition council, which he said was doing nothing illegal.

"They are sending [a message of] demotivation," Latushka told reporters. "They don't want us to be active in our line to have dialogue between society and the government and authorities. It's demotivation."

A small crowd of opposition supporters gathered outside the Investigative Committee offices.

"Many of our rights and freedoms are violated," said Tamara Svetogor, one of those in the crowd. "If we disagree with something in our opinions, criminal cases are opened against us. We have also violence in our country. That's why I believe that the Coordination Council is totally legitimate. The criminal case that was opened has no foundations."

Seventy-two-year-old ailing Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, who was said to be participating in the council's activities remotely, has been summoned for questioning on August 26.

Hundreds of people also gathered outside the Education Ministry earlier on August 25 in a picket in support of schoolteachers threatened with dismissal over their criticism of the government. The peaceful protest occurred as lines of military vehicles drove in front of the teachers in an apparent bid to intimidate them.

Proclaiming that at least six Belarusian protesters have been killed in the crackdown and that dozens have gone missing in police custody, Tsikhanouskaya in her comments to European lawmakers demanded "respect of our political rights," the freeing of "all political prisoners" in Belarus, and an end to "violence and intimidation" by Belarusian authorities.

"Belarus has woken up. We are not the opposition anymore. We are the majority now," Tsikhanouskaya said, declaring that more than 200,000 people took to the streets of Minsk on August 23 for the largest protest there yet.

She also reiterated the readiness of her movement to enter into dialogue with authorities in Minsk to resolve the political crisis over the country's disputed August 9 presidential election results.

Tsikhanouskaya also called on "all of the countries of the world" to support the quest of the Belarusian people to achieve a "free and fair" election result, while also respecting "Belarusian sovereignty" and "territorial integrity."

"The will of the people will not be broken," she said. "I declare our intention to achieve free and fair elections through dialogue."

Tsikhanouskaya also rejected claims by the Belarusian authorities that anti-government protesters had been violent.

"A peaceful revolution has taken place," she said, stressing that demonstrations across the country were not a "geopolitical revolution."

"It is neither a pro-Russian nor an anti-Russian revolution. It is neither an anti-European Union nor a pro-European Union revolution. It is a democratic revolution -- the striving of the people to freely and fairly elect" their own leaders for their own destiny, she said.

Lukashenka has ordered the Belarusian military into full combat readiness, raising the prospect that the army may unleash a much-feared bloody crackdown to suppress the unprecedented wave of street protests across the country.

He has also expressed confidence that the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization would support him in any confrontation that he has with protest organizers in Belarus.

The chief of the Belarusian Armed Forces General Staff, Alyaksandr Volfovich, said on August 25 that the country's military was prepared to ensure the security of "the state, society, and every citizen who wants to live and work peacefully in Belarus."

The United States and the European Union have dismissed the Belarusian election as neither free nor fair and urged the country’s authorities to engage in dialogue with Tsikhanouskaya's team.

An unnamed senior EU official told AFP that the bloc's foreign ministers will look to target "between 15 and 20" individuals with asset freezes and travel bans over the Belarusian crackdown when they meet in Berlin for informal talks on August 26.

Neighboring Russia, a historical ally that wields some influence over Minsk through financial and political levers, on August 25 warned the European Union and the United States against imposing sanctions on Belarus or interfering in Belarusian affairs.

In Moscow, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Washington condemns "the use of violence against the Belarusian people."

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow says Biegun "expressed support for Belarus’ sovereignty and the people’s right to self-determination” during his talks with Lavrov.

With reporting by Current Time, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, and AFP