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#Belarus election: 'Hundreds detained' amid protest as early results indicate Lukashenko landslide

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Clashes broke out as early election results indicated Alexander Lukashenko (right) had won in a landslide against Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (left)   -   Copyright  Sergei Grits/AP Photo

Thousands of protesters have been dispersed by Belarusian police as they flooded the streets in opposition of early election results that indicate longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has secured a landslide victory, writes Rachael Kennedy with AP.

State agency Belta reported on Monday (10 August) the incumbent president had secured 80.23% of the vote, while election officials said his main opponent, former schoolteacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was left with just 9.9%.

There had been a reported 79% turnout by 18h CET on Sunday (9 August) — an hour before polls closed — the Central Election Commission in Belarus said.

Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice who filed her candidacy after her opposition blogger husband was jailed, rejected the claims of early results as thousands of her supporters came out onto the streets to demonstrate.

"I will believe my own eyes," she said, adding: "The majority was for us."

Police in full riot gear responded to the marches with violent dispersal, firing flash-bang grenades and beating protesters with truncheons.

According to one leading rights group, Viasna, hundreds were detained amid the brutal crackdown.

Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Protesters were met by a wall of police in full riot gear
Sergei Grits/AP Photo

A victory for Lukashenko would mark a sixth term in office for the 65-year-old, who has ruled the former-Soviet nation with an iron hand for more than a quarter of a century.

Nicknamed "Europe's last dictator," he warned the opposition over the weekend that if they should "provoke" him, they would get "the same answer" in return.

He said: "Do you want to try to overthrow the government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered?

"This will not happen."

Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Injuries were reported during the protests
Sergei Grits/AP Photo

Injuries, too, were reported among the protesters on Sunday night, while the Associated Press said one of its journalists had been taken to hospital after being beaten by police.

Pavel Konoplyanik, a 23-year-old protester accompanying his friend to Minsk's No 10 hospital for treatment, said: "It was a peaceful protest, we weren't using force."

Both he and his friend had been injured, with the former being cut by fragments of police grenades and the latter getting a plastic grenade fragment lodged in his neck.

Konoplyanik added: "No one will believe in the official results of the vote. They have stolen our victory."

The 23-year-old said he didn't want to leave his country, but thought they may eventually be no other choice.

Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Police beat protesters with truncheons Sergei Grits/AP Photo

Belarus has a long history of violent crackdowns on dissent, with protesters being beaten after an election in 2010, where six candidates were also arrested.

Keeping this in mind, Tsikhanouskaya called for a "peaceful" night on Sunday, and said she had hoped officers would not use force.

The former English teacher may not have any experience in politics, but she has managed to unite opposition groups under her name, and attracted tens of thousands of people to her rallies after emerging as an unlikely candidate to take on Lukashenko.

Sergei Grits/AP Photo
Police violently dispersed thousands of protesters who flooded the streets Sergei Grits/AP Photo

It came after two other opponents, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, had their candidacies rejected.

Babariko is the head of a Russia-owned bank and had been jailed for charges that he maintains are political, while Tsepkalo is an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States, who fled to Russia with his children after fears he would be arrested.

Tsepkalo's wife, Veronika, stayed behind to become a leading member of Tsikhanouskaya's eventual presidential campaign, but she, too, fled the country on Sunday due to fears for her safety.

Eight of Tsikhanouskaya's campaign staff were reportedly arrested over the weekend.

AP
Thousands marched in favour of the opposition, but were violently pushed back by police AP

Honest People, an independent association in Belarus that monitors elections, said observers had found at least 5,096 violations during the vote.

It also called into question the election commission's reported turnout statistics, and said around 70 observers had been detained.

But despite widespread dissent on the streets across Belarus, with its population of 9.5 million, there are still many who have expressed support of their hard-line leader.

Retiree Igor Rozhov said Lukashenko was an "experienced politician" rather than "a housewife who appeared out of nowhere and muddied the waters".

He added: "We need a strong hand that will not allow riots."

Belarus

EU joins the International Accountability Platform for Belarus

Catherine Feore

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The European Union has announced today (26 March) that it will join like-minded countries in supporting the International Accountability Platform for Belarus, an independent and impartial platform for the collection, verification and preservation of documentation and evidence of serious human rights violations perpetrated in Belarus during and after the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election. 

The EU support the platform politically at first, once preparations are finalised, it also intends to provide financial support. 

The European External Action Service statement says: “Belarusian authorities have committed unacceptable human rights violations against the people of Belarus. In the face of a massive, peaceful mobilization of the Belarusian population standing up for democracy and their fundamental freedoms, the authorities have responded with violent repression, arbitrary arrest and detention, hundreds of documented cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual and gender-based violence.

“Unprovoked, arbitrary detentions of over two hundred peaceful people across Belarus yesterday on the occasion of Freedom Day demonstrate that the scale of state-run repression does not decrease. The perpetrators must be held to account.

“The European Union, together with its international partners, is leading the fight against impunity. Together with a group of EU member states and other like-minded countries, the EU is supporting the International Accountability Platform for Belarus.”

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Belarus

MEPs call for suspension of the launch of the Belarus nuclear plant in Ostrovets 

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs voice serious concerns over the safety of the Ostrovets nuclear plant in Belarus and demand that its commercial launch be suspended. In a resolution adopted with 642 votes to 29, with 21 abstentions, Parliament criticises the hasty commissioning of the Ostrovets nuclear plant and the continued lack of transparency and official communication regarding the frequent emergency shutdowns of the reactor and equipment failure.

Despite outstanding safety concerns, the plant started to generate electricity on 3 November 2020 without fully implementing recommendations made in the 2018 EU peer review and by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), MEPs say, expressing their discontent with the rush to start commercial operation of the plant in March 2021.

They call on the Commission to work closely with the Belarusian authorities to delay launching the plant until all EU stress test recommendations are fully implemented and all the necessary safety improvements are in place.

MEPs also urge Belarus to fully comply with international nuclear and environmental safety standards, and to cooperate with international authorities in a transparent manner.

Background

The Ostrovets nuclear plant, built by the Russian group Rosatom, is located 50km from Vilnius (Lithuania) and in close proximity to other EU countries such as Poland, Latvia and Estonia.

Electricity stopped being traded between Belarus and the EU on 3 November when the Ostrovets plant was connected to the electricity grid. This followed the August 2020 joint decision of the Baltic States to cease commercial exchanges of electricity with Belarus once the Ostrovets plant started operating. However, MEPs note that electricity from Belarus can still enter the EU market via the Russian grid.

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Russia targets Belarus's crumbling companies to grow its influence in the country

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Europe’s oldest dictatorship could be living its last moments. Since the contested election in August, unprecedented mass protests have been taking place across the country. Brussels and Washington, who no longer recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president, have imposed sanctions against Lukashenko and his allies, and more could be on the way.

Last month, the EU announced its third set of sanctions. This time, sanctions were meant to target those that provide direct or indirect financial support to the Lukashenko regime, thus restricting those that have enabled and prolonged the violence that has spread across the country. This new round of sanctions from Brussels on Belarus is likely to lead many Belarusians to look for opportunities to offload assets onto proxies so as to maintain some influence over their corporate holdings, or to sell them to foreign parties to avoid bankruptcy.

Moscow, one of Lukashenko’s last allies, has assured Minsk of its continued political and financial support. This kind of support rarely comes without strings attached. Some suggest that business interests close to the Kremlin are already making moves to acquire an increased share in Belarus’ important state-owned enterprises.

The West should be under no illusion that measures designed to end Lukashenko’s 26-year reign doesn’t mean the end of Moscow’s influence in Belarus. Regardless of what happens to Lukashenko, Russia has a future-proof plan to maintain, and even expand, its influence in the country.

Russia’s economic domination of Belarus is nothing new. Russian energy giants own strategically important pipelines that transit Belarus to deliver Russian gas to Poland and Germany, and Russia owns a 42.5% stake in Belarus’ giant Mozyr oil-processing facility via Slavneft, which is currently controlled by Rosneft and Gazpromneft.

Months of strikes alongside the pro-democracy protests have brought many of the country’s most prominent state-owned industrial enterprises to the brink of collapse. In order to create the economic conditions that will facilitate the takeover of major Belarusian companies, several Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin have been supporting the protests, awaiting the opportunity to take control. In the fertilizer industry, Belarus-born Russian oligarch Dmitry Mazepin is already positioning himself to take over the state fertilizer producer, Belaruskali.

Through his companies Uralchem and Uralkali he controls a significant portion of the global fertilizer market, and continues to inch towards monopolizing the market by illegally taking over rival company TogliattiAzot. Mazepin has even been supporting strike actions and student protestors, promising to pay for their studies in Russia.

Such moves would not happen if they weren’t authorized and even encouraged by the Kremlin and its proxies. Mazepin is close to individuals sanctioned by the US and the EU since 2018 for their ties to the Kremlin. He is also close to members of the Belarusian government and has been keen to get involved in Belarusian politics through the creation of a “Committee for the Salvation of Belarus” bringing together Belarusian and Russian executives in effort to promote economic reform and political reconciliation in the country aligned with Russian interests. His involvement in Belarusian affairs has even seen his company Uralkali gain from the strike protests at Belaruskali, which government officials state was the work of external forces.

Economic sanctions can be effective and discourage state abuse of power , but if they create a spill over effect where assets are pushed into Russia’s orbit, and conditions are made ideal for corporate raiders like Mazepin, this won’t help build the Belarus of tomorrow. With Russian oligarchs lined up to profit from sanctions on Belarusian corporate interests, crony privatizations and economic despair, there is little hope that the departure of Lukashenko will result in the creation of a democracy and a market economy in the country. It would be the West’s loss, and more importantly, that of the Belarusian people, who have so bravely fought for their freedom.

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