By RFE RL
By Tony Wesolowsky*
(RFE/RL) — One day after an estimated 200,000 people flooded the streets of Minsk demanding longtime leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down, the council established to facilitate a transfer of power met the reporters in the Belarusian capital for the first time.
Members of the Coordination Council made clear that Lukashenka, whose 26-year reign was extended in the disputed August 9 presidential vote, would have to wake up to the new political reality.
“Belarus has changed and authorities will have to talk to us,” Maryya Kalesnikava, a council member and close ally of its creator, the self-exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said August 24.
Lukashenka’s government has responded to the council’s challenge this way: his prosecutor-general has opened an investigation, claiming the council is attempting to “seize” power illegally and of having an “anti-Russian” agenda. Two of its members have been arrested. Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich was called in by the powerful Investigative Committee for questioning on her participation with the council.
Now, instead of planning for a possible post-Lukashenka future, the council finds itself parrying the government’s propaganda blows, said Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies.
Tsikhanouskaya announced the creation of the Coordination Council on August 18, nine days after the vote. The goal was to ensure a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Belarus which erupted after Lukashenka was declared the winner with some 80 percent of the vote, giving him a sixth straight term in office.
Official results said Tsikhanouskaya won only 10 percent of the ballots; something she and her supporters have rejected, saying the vote was falsified.
At the same time that council members were being arrested, Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania as protests erupted in Minsk, met with a senior U.S. diplomat in Vilnius. The meeting, with the number two diplomat at the U.S. State Department, was the latest in the Western efforts to encourage Lukashenka to talk to his opponents, especially the Coordination Council, whose members include a former Lukashenka government official.
Soon after polls closed on August 9, Belarusians took to the streets to protest what many suspected was yet another rigged election, a vote that was not even monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In the ensuing crackdown, some 7,000 people were detained and hundreds beaten; many have complained of torture and maltreatment while in police custody. The EU and United States have led condemnations of the vote and crackdown.
At a Minsk news conference on August 24, opposition lawyer Maksim Znak said as many as 600 people were involved with the Coordination Council; about 70 formed its “backbone,” and seven were on the group’s presidium. He invited all Belarusians to join the council’s activities.
“We are for cooperation and dialogue with all countries, especially with neighbors,” said another council member, Paval Latushka, a 47-year-old former ambassador, Foreign Ministry spokesman, and ex-culture minister.
Since 2019 he has been the head of Minsk’s oldest theater, the 19th century Janka Kupala National Theater.
Last week, after speaking out against the government, Latushka was fired from his post and the theater has become a flashpoint for the demonstrations.
He told the news conference that the sight of detainees emerging from prison with bruises and complaining of punishment beatings convinced him to join the protests.
Besides Latushka and Alexievich, a beloved and renowned cultural figure whose health has reportedly deteriorated, the council includes several dozen prominent civic leaders.
Lukashenka, meanwhile, has gone to extremes to paint the group as subversive while he also appears to be warming up again to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Belarusian leader has also put troops on alert amid unfounded allegations NATO forces are gathering on its western borders, a claim the Western military alliance has rejected.
On August 21, as part of the criminal probe that claimed the council was “aimed at seizing power and undermining the national security of Belarus,” Znak was called in for questioning by the Investigative Committee.
Znak earlier had filed an official complaint with the Supreme Court calling for the election results to be ruled invalid.
Three days later, on August 24, outside the Minsk Tractor Factory, authorities detained two council members: Volha Kovalkova, a top aide of Tsikhanouskaya, and strike organizer Syarhey Dyleuski. They were accused of attempting to organize an unauthorized protest rally at the plant.
Both appeared in court after spending a night in jail. Dyleuski was sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Another member of the council, lawyer Lilia Vlasova, was also summoned to the Investigative Committee on August 24 for questioning.
Alexievich, who has accused Lukashenka of launching a war against his own people with the crackdown, was due to appear before the Investigative Committee for questioning related to the council on August 26.
And more institutional pressure continued to pile up on August 25, when the head of the country’s Supreme Court ruled the council was “unconstitutional.”
The pressure on the council has drawn criticism from international organizations.
“We are outraged by the launch of criminal proceedings against members of the Coordination Council, which has formed with the sole objective of facilitating a peaceful dialogue with the current government of Belarus,” said Marc Behrendt, director of Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, the U.S.-government-funded democracy monitor.
In e-mailed remarks to RFE/RL, Klysinski said the council had not yet become a focus of, or rallying point for, opposition groups.
“So far the Coordination Council has not become an efficient and strong center of the protest movement or the main focus for all opponents of the regime,” Klysinski said.
“Moreover, the propaganda counteroffensive of the regime including accusations of being radically anti-Russian even strengthen the fear on possible political strategy, especially concerning foreign policy. Now, one of the main tasks of the council is to deny all those allegations,” he added.
Meanwhile, as Lukashenka continued tightening the vice, Tsikhanouskaya received a public endorsement from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun
“She is a very impressive person and I can see why she is so popular in her country,” Biegun said after August 24 talks in Vilnius.
“The purpose of the meeting was to listen, to hear what the thinking is of the Belarusian people and to see what they are doing to obtain the right to self-determination,” he added.
In a presentation before the European Parliament on August 25, Tsikhanouskaya repeated her appeal for countries to support the Belarusian people to achieve a “free and fair” election result.
“Belarus has woken up. We are not the opposition anymore. We are the majority now,” Tsikhanouskaya told the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Klysinski argued that as opposition grows, and the Coordination Council becomes more visible, Lukashenka will become more desperate and will likely resort to even harsher measures.
“But Lukashenka is now so angry and upset and desperate to hold onto power that I doubt he will follow rational policy,” he said. “And that means strong repression of the council.”
- Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.