Tensions Mount in Belarus; Lukashenko Rejects Rerunning Vote

MINSK, Belarus (AP) -- President Alexander Lukashenko, under pressure from massive protests that broke out after a questionable election that gave him a sixth term in a landslide, on Sunday vehemently rejected any possibility of holding a rerun of the vote.

Lukashenko spoke at a rally of thousands of government supporters near the main government building in Minsk, the capital, while large crowds streamed toward the site of an opposition rally 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) away, the ninth straight day of anti-government rallies.

The authoritarian president has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist since 1994, repressing opposition figures and independent news media. But this year, fed up with the country's declining living standards and Lukashenko's dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic, sustained anti-government protests before and after the Aug. 9 presidential election have posed the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule.

On Sunday, the 65-year-old Lukashenko accused Western powers of interfering in his country's sovereignty. He claimed they were gathering military units in countries along Belarus' western borders and denounced suggestions by some Western nations that Belarus should rerun its Aug. 9 presidential vote, which opposition supporters say gave Lukashenko a victory only through massive fraud.

“If we follow their lead (and rerun the election), we will perish as a state,” Lukashenko declared Sunday, a day after saying he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed that Russia would send unspecified security assistance to Belarus if Lukashenko asked for it.

In previous months, Lukashenko had warned that Putin had wanted to take over Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million people in Eastern Europe that has a long border with Russia.

As Lukashenko invoked fears of Western military designs on Belarus, the Collective Treaty Security Organization, a military alliance of six former Soviet states including Belarus, said Sunday it would make a decision about providing assistance if Belarus requested it.

Election officials said last week that Lukashenko won a sixth term with about 80% of the vote. Protesters claim the election was a sham and allege results were manipulated.

As post-election protests grew, about 7,000 people were arrested at the demonstrations, which police harshly tried to put down with clubs, rubber bullets and flash grenades. When many detainees were later released, they showed extensive bruises they said were due to police beatings. Some protesters at rallies carried pictures of loved ones so beaten by police they could not attend.

On Saturday, hundreds of opposition supporters turned out for a funeral for one protester, Alexander Taraikovsky, 34, who died last week in Minsk under disputed circumstances. The government has claimed he was killed by an incendiary device he was carrying, but his partner saw the body and told The Associated Press there were no marks on his hands, just a hole in his chest, and she believes he was shot.

Video from AP journalists showed Taraikovsky with a bloody shirt on the ground, but it did not show that he had an explosive device that blew up in his hand as the government claims.

As Lukashenko's supporters waited for his appearance at the Sunday rally, many chanted his nickname of “Batka," or “father.”

They also chanted “Maidan won't take place,” referring to the months of protests in Ukraine in 2013-14 that drove then-President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country. Shortly after Yanukovych's departure, Putin then moved to annex the entire Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine, claiming a huge swathe of its Black Sea coast for Russia.

Lukashenko supporters wanted to note the positive aspects of his rule.

“Now everybody is against Lukashenko and the president needs our support. Everybody suddenly has forgotten the good things he has done — there's order in the country, we don't have war of hunger,” said supporter Tamara Yurshevich, a 35-year-old lawyer.

Yet Belarus' declining economy and Lukashenko's dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic as “psychosis” are among the factors that galvanized the largest and most sustained protests the country has ever seen.