Belarus opposition calls for nationwide strike as Lukashenko’s deadline to stop expires

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Belarus’s opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said on Monday that supporters had begun a nationwide strike after her deadline for strongman Alexander Lukashenko to resign.

Factory workers sang slogans Monday, students took to the streets, and police detained as Belarusians responded to the opposition’s call for a national strike, local media footage showed.

Tikhanovskaya had given Lukashenko until Sunday to stop power, stop violence against protesters and release political prisoners, warning that he would otherwise face a general strike from Monday.

The 66-year-old Lukashenko, who was accused by the opposition of stealing the election in August, ignored the ultimatum and police cracked down on the latest of a series of opposition protests on Sunday.

“Today, the people’s strike is starting,” Tikhanovskaya said on his Telegram channel.

“Employees of state factories and companies, transport workers and miners, teachers and students have been on strike since this morning.”

Tikhanovskaya encouraged members of private companies, pastors and athletes to participate.

The 38-year-old opposition figure, who claims to have won the August 9 election and is now based in Lithuania, an EU country, did not provide any figures on the number of participants.

A new phase

If sustained, the strikes could open a new phase in the crisis and test whether the opposition has the mass support it needs to bring companies across the country of 9.5 million people to an end. Earlier, the opposition staged some strikes at state-owned factories, but they were not sustained.

Local media reported groups of strikes in many major state-controlled companies. However, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said all of the country’s major industrial companies were operating normally.

Officers in plain clothes stood next to vans outside the Minsk Tractor Works and Minsk Automobile Plant. A witness said a person was detained.

Hundreds of students marched out of several universities in Minsk, clapping and singing, while passing cars encouraged their horns in support.

On one street, black-clad officers poured masks out of vans, detained people and dragged them away, footage from the news site Tut.by showed. A group of students ran away after being dispersed by police, other footage from the Nasha Niva outlet showed.

Test of Russian support

If strikes come close to paralyzing the country, it could be a further test of Russian support for its ally Lukashenko.

Since the crisis began, Moscow has backed him with a $ 1.5 billion loan and increased security cooperation, including a series of joint military exercises and a visit last week by the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency. Russia even sent journalists to staff on Belarusian state television when staff stopped in protest of what they described as propaganda.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. Official results showed him the winning winner of the election on 9 August. The opposition and Western countries say the vote was rigged, which he denies.

About 15,000 people have since been arrested during a breakdown of mass demonstrations. Almost all opposition leaders fled or were imprisoned.

Western countries have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on some officials, accusing them of electoral fraud and human rights abuses, but have had to weigh their support for the democratic movement with reluctance to provoke Russia.

( Jowharwith AFP and REUTERS)