KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Crowds of people took to the streets Sunday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in a weekly protest against the country’s authoritarian leader who won a sixth term in office in a disputed election.
Thousands were estimated to have taken part in small rallies scattered around more than 70 different areas of the capital — a new tactic used by the opposition instead of one large gathering intended to make it harder for security forces to target the protesters.
Demonstrators carrying red-and-white flags, the symbol of the protest, gathered in groups and marched down residential areas of the city, demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko. “Lukashenko, go away!” crowds chanted. In several places, groups of protesters were led by people wearing Santa Claus costumes.
Over 200 people have been detained during protests, according to the Viasna human rights center.
Mass protests have gripped Belarus, an ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million people, ever since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over his widely popular opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She and her supporters refused to recognize the result, saying the vote was riddled with fraud, and some poll workers came forward to detail how the election was rigged in their areas.
Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police have used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies.
This was the first Sunday in over four months of protests when subway stations in Minsk were not closed ahead of the demonstrations and internet access wasn’t restricted.
Videos of the rallies posted on social media showed security forces chasing and detaining protesters in courtyards in residential areas. One journalist was detained, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said.
Protesters believe the constant repression of their movement won’t help Lukashenko, who has been in office for 26 years, hold on to power for much longer.
“Lukashenko will not be able to hold on to power for a long time with repressions and violence. The majority of Belarusians don’t believe him anymore, he has become toxic and his departure is only a matter of time and our persistence,” Alena Turavets, one of those rallying in Minsk on Sunday, told The Associated Press.
“Tens of thousands of Belarusians have already gone through detentions, torture and paid a high price for freedom,” Turavets said.
According to the Viasna center, over 30,000 people have been detained since the protests began in August, and thousands of them were brutally beaten. Four people are reported to have died as the result of the government’s crackdown on demonstrators and opposition supporters.