European Council President Charles Michel on Monday convened an emergency summit of EU leaders to discuss the presidential election in Belarus and the crackdown in the wake of the polls.
Michel tweeted that “the people of Belarus have the right to decide on their future and freely elect their leader.”
“Violence against protesters is unacceptable and cannot be allowed,” he said.
The meeting comes as thousands of factory workers in Belarus took to the streets and hundreds of demonstrators besieged the state television headquarters Monday, raising the pressure on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down after 26 years in office.
On the ninth straight day of protests against the official results of the Aug. 9 presidential vote handing him a sixth term, Lukashenko flew by helicopter to a factory in the capital in a bid to rally support but was heckled by workers chanting, “Go away!”
Facing the angry crowd, the 65-year-old former state farm director dismissed the calls to step down.
As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of Minsk, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leading opposition candidate.
The official election results gave Lukashenko 80 per cent of the votes and Tikhanovskaya only 10 per cent, but the opposition claimed the vote was rigged.
The 27 EU foreign ministers said on Friday that the elections were neither free nor fair and that they refuse to accept the results of the polls as announced by the Belarus electoral commission.
WATCH | Russia may step in as Belarus protests escalate:
Opposition politician says she’s ready to lead
“Lukashenko is a former president, he needs to go,” Sergei Dylevsky, the leader of the protest at the Minsk Tractor Works plant, told The Associated Press on Monday. “Sveta [Tikhanovskaya] is our president, legitimate and elected by the people.”
Tikhanovskaya said in a video statement Monday she was ready to facilitate a rerun of the disputed election.
“I’m ready to take on the responsibility and act as a national leader in order for the country to calm down, return to its normal rhythm, in order for us to free all the political prisoners and prepare legislation and conditions for organizing new presidential elections,” she said.
At a rally on Sunday, Lukashenko bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, insisting his government was the only legitimate one, and rejected the idea of repeating the election. The embattled president told a crowd of 50,000 that the country would “perish as a state” otherwise, and denounced the protesters as stooges of foreign masterminds.
Lukashenko dismissed the strikes as insignificant. “So, 150 [people] at some factory, even 200 don’t make a difference,” the president was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.
Thousands of workers from several other plants in the meantime gathered outside, shouting, “We’re not sheep, we’re people,” and “Strike!”
Vote sparked large-scale protests
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, entered the presidential race after her husband’s jailing in Belarus. She managed to galvanize nationwide support, drawing tens of thousands to her campaign rallies.
Large-scale protests against the vote results continued even after she left the country for Lithuania last week, a move her campaign said was made under duress. The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule of the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million.
Belarusian authorities initially tried to suppress the rallies, detaining almost 7,000 people in the first days of the protests. Police moved aggressively, using stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, injuring scores of people.
However, as protests grew and the harsh crackdown drew criticism in the West, law enforcement refrained from interfering with the crowds and appeared all but absent during a rally on Sunday that attracted some 200,000 people.
Poland monitoring border
Separately, Poland is monitoring the situation on its border with Belarus, as the Belarusian army plans to hold drills this week in the Grodno region bordering Poland and Lithuania, Deputy Defence Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz said on Monday.
Over the weekend Russia’s RIA news agency reported that the Belarusian army plans to hold drills over Aug. 17-20 near the country’s nuclear plant and in the Grodno region, while Lukashenko said that an air assault brigade would move to Belarus’s western border.
Lukashenko said earlier that he was concerned with the NATO military exercises being conducted in Poland and Lithuania, which he sees as an arms build-up.
NATO dismissed the allegations by Lukashenko but said it was closely monitoring the situation following his contested re-election.
“Neither Poland nor other Western European countries will get caught up in the intrigue Lukashenko is trying to plot,” Skurkiewicz told public radio.
“We are looking at what is happening in Belarus, just like all NATO countries, and we will also look at what happens at our borders. We will not be passive in this observation,” Skurkiewicz also said.
Polish officials have been discussing the situation in Belarus with the EU and the United States. Poland said that potential EU sanctions on Belarus should only be imposed on individuals responsible for the use of force and for organizing the election, which Warsaw believes will need to be repeated.
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily that the EU should not impose sanctions on Belarus without presenting the country an alternative to its close ties with Russia.
“Of course this is not about immediately including Belarus into the orbit of EU associated countries, as it is too early for it…. However, Belarus needs to have … the possibility of real co-operation with the EU countries,” Jablonski said in an interview published on Monday.