SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 9 February 2023, Thursday |

Belarus Opposition to Restart Protests as Crackdown Widens

Resumption of protests in Belarus coincides with Freedom Day , which the opposition marks each year on the anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence in 1918.

Opposition activists in Belarus were preparing for fresh protests on Thursday to breathe life into a movement against strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko that fizzled out during the winter in the face of a severe crackdown.

Rallies erupted in the ex-Soviet country last August after President Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in a vote the opposition and Western diplomats said was rigged.

But a sustained police crackdown saw weekly mass demonstrations in city centres peter out by the end of the year, with thousands of protesters detained and several killed.

The opposition has since changed tactics, calling for supporters to gather in small groups in every district.

The Nexta Telegram channel, which mobilised and coordinated demonstrators, has called for protesters to march through courtyards and organise flash mobs throughout Thursday.

It called on drivers across the country to sound their horns at 6:30 pm (1530 GMT) and for a nationwide firework salute to end the day at 9:00 pm.

“We want to declare March 25 the day when the cities are ours!” Nexta wrote.

Officials have said the planned protests are illegal and have moved to crack down on dissent, this week targeting a group representing Polish people in Belarus for stirring up racial hatred and “rehabilitation of Nazism”.

Police detained the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Anzhelika Boris, for 15 days on Wednesday and searched the group’s offices, the homes of its activists and at least one Polish school.

Belarus’s relations with Poland deteriorated after the EU member sheltered activists — including the coordinators of Nexta — who fled across the border to escape a crackdown.

Other critics, including opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, fled to Lithuania shortly after the August vote.

She has since lobbied Western governments to support her call for new elections in a country ruled by Lukashenko since 1994.

“I wish for all of us to meet next March 25 in the Belarus we deserve — in a country where the law is respected, rights are respected and the people are respected,” Tikhanovskaya wrote on her Telegram channel Thursday.

Western governments have slapped sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies and say political novice Tikhanovskaya was the true winner of the vote.