Two Belarus opposition leaders were interrogated on Friday, as Alexander Lukashenko battles to reassert his control over the eastern European nation following his disputed re-election as president.
The interrogations are the latest attempt by Mr Lukashenko’s regime to quell his opponents, who have spearheaded the biggest challenge to the former collective-farm boss’s regime since he took power in 1994.
Since Mr Lukashenko claimed victory over opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on August 9, Belarus has been rocked by strikes at state-owned companies and the biggest protests in its independent history.
Despite the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets, Mr Lukashenko has refused to back down. On Thursday, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into a council set up by aides of Ms Tikhanovskaya to negotiate a peaceful transition of power, claiming that it was aimed at “seizing state power” and posed a threat to national security.
Maksim Znak, a lawyer, and Sergei Dylevsky, leader of the strike committee at the state-owned Minsk Tractor Plant, both members of the opposition council, were questioned on Friday.
The has EU called on Belarusian authorities to drop the case. “The co-ordination council . . . reached out to the authorities for a dialogue and the authorities answered with the opening of a criminal case,” a spokeswoman said. “In doing so, the Belarusian state authorities have once again reverted to intimidation based on political grounds.”
Ms Tikhanovskaya said on Friday she hoped that Belarus’ authorities would begin “dialogue” and move to hold new elections.
“I really hope and believe that the government will listen to its people. We were always told the president loves his country and his people. What he sees now makes it clear that people want change,” she said.
“I love my homeland like crazy, and I really want to go back. And I will definitely go back as soon as I feel safe there,” she added.
Further protests against Mr Lukashenko are due to take place across Belarus this weekend, culminating in a rally at Independence Square in the capital Minsk, on Sunday.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Mr Lukashenko unleashed a brutal crackdown on people protesting that the result had been rigged, in which at least three died, hundreds were injured and almost 7000 were detained, before backing off at the end of last week.
But in recent days, Mr Lukashenko has again taken a tougher stance, ordering the interior ministry to prevent any further protests from taking place, and telling his security services to hunt down organisers.
Mr Lukashenko’s regime has also stepped up the pressure on workers at state-owned companies who have gone on strike, threatening them with dismissal if they refuse to back down.
“There are many who are ready [to lose their jobs]. But we do not want to leave the enterprise,” said Maksim, a loader driver at the BelAZ plant in Zhodino. “While we are on strike, the regime is forced to listen to us. As soon as we find ourselves on the street, we are no longer safe.”
On Friday, Mr Lukashenko told a group of factory workers “the situation in the country is extremely politicised, but it shouldn’t be viewed as catastrophic,” according to state newswire Belta.
“Someone in Minsk and in other places is upset. That’s only natural. But you shouldn’t be worried. This is my problem, which I must solve, and we’re solving it now. Believe me, we’ll solve it in the coming days,” he said.
Mr Lukashenko claimed the US was plotting the uprisings in an attempt to make Belarus part of an anti-Russian bloc from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
He said Belarusian security services were “on guard every day from morning till night guarding peace and order. And I saw that the guys are not planning to hand over their country to anyone.”
On Thursday, the defence minister, Viktor Khrenin, told military commanders they needed to be ready “to fight — with weapons, if necessary” to put down the opposition to Mr Lukashenko. “There may well be a military conflict, that’s reality today,” he said.