Aug 16, 2020 - World

Belarus draws largest protest yet as Lukashenko rejects election do-over

Minsk protesters

Belarus opposition supporters attend a demonstration in central Minsk on Aug. 16. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the Belarus capital of Minsk on Sunday as President Aleksandr Lukashenko, the man known as "Europe's last dictator," rejected calls to hold a new election and accused NATO of massing at the country's western border.

Why it matters: It was the eighth day of demonstrations since Lukashenko proclaimed a landslide victory over pro-democracy opposition in an election widely viewed as rigs, and likely the largest protest in the history of the former Soviet republic, according to the New York Times.

The state of play: Lukashenko's claims of a military buildup by NATO, which the Western alliance denied, came after the authoritarian leader revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had pledged "comprehensive security assistance" if necessary to fight back foreign forces.

  • Condemning anti-government protesters as "rats" controlled by "puppeteers" and "outsiders," Lukashenko warned at a rally that Belarus would "perish as a state" if the election were rerun, according to AP.
  • Many of the supporters at the rally, which was dwarfed by upwards of 300,000 people who turned out to protest, had to be bused in from towns and villages outside of Minsk — reflecting Lukashenko's dwindling support, according to the Times.
  • The protest took on a lighter and more celebratory tone than the nightly demonstrations, which have resulted in over 6,000 arrests and an untold number of injuries as protesters violently clash with riot police.

The big picture: The European Union's foreign ministers agreed on Friday to prepare sanctions against Belarusian officials for "violence, repression and the falsification of election results."

  • The U.S. has condemned the election as "not free or fair," but it's unclear if the Trump administration plans to take any punitive steps.
  • The foreign minister of neighboring Lithuania, where main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in hiding, has referred to Lukashenko on Twitter as the "former president of Belarus."

On the ground

Lukashenko speaks at his own rally. Photo: Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
Protesters in Minsk
Protesters near the Minsk Hero City Obelisk. Photo: Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
Belarus protesters
Protesters former white and red flag of Belarus. Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images
Go deeper