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Politics

Belarus Challenger Urges EU to Support “Awakening” Country

MINSK, Belarus — The Belarusian opposition leader has called on European leaders not to recognize "fraudulent elections" that extended the rule of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and sparked unprecedented mass protests in the country. 

In a video statement released ahead of Wednesday's emergency summit of EU leaders dedicated to the situation in Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Europe to support "the awakening of Belarus." 

"I call on you not to recognize these fraudulent elections. Mr. Lukashenko has lost all the legitimacy in the eyes of our nation and the world," Tsikhanouskaya said. 

Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994, won his sixth term with 80% of votes in the Aug. 9 election widely seen as rigged. Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who united fractured opposition groups and drew tens of thousands to rally in her support, got only 10%. 

She dismissed the results as falsified and demanded a recount, but then suddenly left the country for Lithuania in a move her campaign said was made under duress. 

Earlier this week Tsikhanouskaya said she was ready to act as a national leader to facilitate a rerun of the election, and her associates announced the formation of a "coordination council" to help create a platform for a peaceful transition of power. 

"I have initiated the national coordination council of Belarus. It will lead the process of a peaceful transition of power via dialogue. It will immediately call for new fair and democratic presidential elections with international supervision," Tsikhanouskaya said in the latest video statement. 

Lukashenko repeatedly rejected demands to step down and bristled at the idea of talks with the opposition, denouncing the coordination council on Tuesday as a "an attempt to seize power" in the country. Nevertheless, the council is set to convene for the first time on Wednesday. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have protested in Belarus since Aug. 9. The rallies have continued for 10 straight days despite a brutal response from the police, who in the first four days of demonstrations detained almost 7,000 people and injured hundreds with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. At least two protesters died. 

This week, workers at several major industrial plants, including a huge factory that accounts for a fifth of the world's potash fertilizer output, have started a strike demanding the embattled president resign. 

On Wednesday morning, rallies resumed in Minsk, and police once again started detaining protesters. Nearly 50 people were detained in front of the Minsk Tractor Factory, where workers have been on strike since Monday, according to Sergei Dylevsky, leader of the factory's strike committee.

"People are on strike demanding Lukashenko's resignation, and authorities respond with batons and riot police," Dylevsky told The Associated Press. "Lukashenko is not changing."

Police also blocked all entrances to the Janka Kupala National Theater in Minsk, where the troupe on Tuesday gave notice en masse after its director, Pavel Latushko, was fired for siding with protesters. Actors who arrived at the theater on Wednesday morning were not allowed in. 

"It's unprecedented that in the 21st century law enforcement is deployed to a cultural institution. The situation speaks for itself," Latushko said. 

Western officials refused to recognize the election as free or fair and criticized the violent crackdown. The EU is preparing a list of Belarus officials who could be blacklisted from Europe over their roles.

In a letter inviting leaders of the bloc to the teleconference due to take place on Wednesday, EU Council President Charles Michel said that "what we have witnessed in Belarus is not acceptable." He said the "violence against peaceful protesters was shocking and has to be condemned. Those responsible must be held to account."

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