Opposition activists are preparing for a new round of protests in Belarus

Opposition activists in Belarus prepared for new protests on Thursday to breathe life into a movement against strongman Alexander Lukashenko who erupted during the winter in the face of a serious force.

Meetings broke out in the ex-Soviet country in August last year after President Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in a vote that the opposition and Western diplomats said was rigged.

But a sustained police crackdown saw weekly mass demonstrations in the city center erupt at the end of the year, with thousands of protesters jailed and several killed.

The opposition has since changed tactics and urged supporters to gather in small groups in each district.

The Nexta Telegram channel, which mobilized and coordinated protesters, has called on protesters to march through the courtyards and organize flash mobs throughout Thursday.

It urged drivers across the country to ring at 18:30 (1530 GMT) and that a nationwide fireworks salute should end the day at. 21.00.

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

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

“Belarus we deserve”

Officials have said the planned protests are illegal and have moved to fight disagreements, this week targeting a group representing Polish people in Belarus for inciting racial hatred and “rehabilitation of Nazism”.

Police detained the head of the Polish Confederation of Belarus, Anzhelika Boris, for 15 days on Wednesday and searched the group’s office, its activist’s home and at least one Polish school.

Belarus’ relations with Poland deteriorated after the EU member protected activists – including the Nexta coordinators – who fled across the border to escape a force.

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

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

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

Western governments have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies, saying political novice Tikhanovskaya was the real winner of the vote.

‘Second wave’

The UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday called on Belarus to halt its actions and called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate violations related to police action.

But Lukashenko, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has claimed victory in a Western-led revolution.

More than 400 people have received long prison sentences due to the protests.

The measure has created fear and dampened risk-taking even among those who “are very anxious about change”, says Alexander Klaskovsky, a Belarusian political scientist.

“They understand that the price may be too high,” he said.

Police do not expect a large attendance at Thursday’s protests, Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Karpenkov said last week that only a few dozen would attend.

But Nexta has also called for mass protests on Saturday, calling it “the day we start the second wave of street protests.”

“Get ready to return to your city centers,” Nexta wrote.