Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko was under mounting pressure to resign on Sunday, as opposition supporters prepared to rally in the capital Minsk and demand his departure.
The eastern European nation has endured a tumultuous seven days, since Mr Lukashenko claimed an improbable landslide victory in last week’s flawed presidential election, and then unleashed a savage crackdown on Belarusians who took to the streets to protest that the vote was rigged.
The clampdown, during which at least two people died, hundreds were injured and nearly 7,000 detained, amid a widespread internet blackout, initially seemed to quell the protests.
But as details began to emerge of how detainees had been beaten and tortured, protests gathered steam on Thursday, and have mushroomed into the most serious challenge that Mr Lukashenko has faced since the former collective-farm boss took power in 1994.
“I don’t remember anything like this since 1994 or even 1991. In 2010, there were protests, but they were just 12,000 or 15,000 people and they were just from the opposition. But today it is not just the opposition — it is the people, who simply want changes,” said Eugen from Minsk.
“And we hope, and do everything, that these changes happen. I hope that Lukashenko will be strong enough to say ‘OK, new free and fair elections’ or he will simply go away — anywhere. But he is afraid because if he leaves, then he will be in court in The Hague.”
Organisers expect Sunday’s protest, which will start at 2pm and culminate at the Stela second world war memorial, where some of the worst violence took place on election night, to be one of the biggest in Belarus’s independent history.
“Absolutely everyone [should] come out! The time has come!” opposition organisers urged on the Nexta Telegram channel, adding that their demands were the departure of Mr Lukashenko, the immediate release of political prisoners and those detained this week, and that those responsible for the violence be held to account.
However, in an effort to show that he still has backing, supporters of Mr Lukashenko began a rally, in Minsk two hours earlier. The opposition Nexta Telegram channel claimed that convoys of workers from state-owned companies, which have long been the bastion of Mr Lukashenko’s support, were being bussed into Minsk to take part.
In recent days, there have been signs of cracks in Belarus’s elite. Several high-profile presenters have resigned from state TV. On Saturday, the independent Nasha Niva website posted a video in which the Belarusian ambassador to Slovakia, Igor Leshchenya, expressed his “solidarity” with protesters.
Strikes have also spread through Belarus’s state-owned companies.
Allies of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in last week’s election, are trying to persuade the EU to recognise her as president.
Under mounting pressure, Mr Lukashenko on Saturday issued a desperate appeal for help to Vladimir Putin, and subsequently claimed that his Russian counterpart had pledged to back him if needed.
“He and I agreed: at our first request they will provide comprehensive security assistance to ensure Belarus’s security,” Mr Lukashenko said, according to the state-run Belta news agency.
The Kremlin did not directly confirm Mr Lukashenko’s claim that it would provide security assistance, saying merely that Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko had “expressed confidence” that the problems in Belarus would “soon be resolved”.