After Beatings and Teargas Fail to Suppress Protests, Belarus Authorizes Live Fire

Authorities in Belarus have threatened to step up their clampdown on demonstrations against the strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, with the interior ministry announcing that law enforcement has been given permission to use combat weapons.

Protests opposing the rule of Lukashenko have taken place both before and after the August 9 election, which has not been recognized internationally. Following the disputed ballot, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhonovskaya left the country.

In what was dubbed a "march of the pensioners," thousands took to the streets of the capital Minsk on Monday, waving the ensign of the opposition, a white flag with a red stripe, while chanting: "Out".

Police used flare guns in tense standoffs between with protesters who were shouting "fascists" as plumes of smoke and spray filled the air. The previous day, over 700 people were arrested for mass protests, during which security forces used water cannons and batons to break up the gatherings.

Belarus protests
A woman argues with officers during a rally to protest against the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk on October 11, 2020. Belarus has threatened to fire on protesters opposing leader Alexander Lukeahsnko. Getty Images

First deputy Interior Minister Gennady Kazakevich accused the protesters of being comprised of "militants, radicals, anarchists and football hooligans," adding, "this has nothing to do with civil protests."

"On behalf of the interior ministry, I say that we will not leave the streets and will guarantee the law in the country. Law enforcement personnel and interior troops will use special equipment and lethal weapons if need be," he said.

So far protests have seen thousands arrested, including school students, in a crackdown that has been condemned internationally. The government announcement suggests an escalation is imminent.

"I don't see it as a sign of transparency, if they want to use live ammunition, lethal weapons, they don't have to announce it. I am quite confident they will use them anyway," said Minsk journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, Hanna Liubakova.

"The authorities are trying to find a way to justify violence," she said, "this is a threat to scare people, to get them to stay at home," she told Newsweek.

On Sunday, Lukashenko went to a KGB prison and met with opposition figures including Viktor Babaryko, who was considered his toughest rival in the August elections before he was jailed.

Belarus protests
Belarusian pensioners during a rally to demand the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on October 12, 2020. Lukashenko is facing widespread opposition after his disputed election victory in August. Getty Images

Others present in the idiosyncratic photo opportunity publicized by state-run media, in which no one appeared to be smiling, were Liliya Vlasova, from the opposition's Coordination Council, which is negotiating a transfer of power, and Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-U.S. strategist who advised the Russian opposition.

The move and the crackdown on Monday are part of a bid to seize back the initiative in amid condemnation of Lukashenko from the European Union and the U.S., Tikhonovskaya's garnering of western support—which the Belarusian president has never enjoyed—and lukewarm enthusiasm from Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"Lukashenko looks weak and he has to show that he is in control of the situation," Liubakova said.

"That is why the next day after the meeting, we saw this escalation—the violence, the hand grenades and the tear gas," she added.

On Monday, the EU reiterated that it did not recognize the election result, condemned state violence against peaceful protesters, and said Lukashenko would be added to an earlier EU sanctions list targeting 40 officials.

The European Council said in a statement that it "strongly condemns violence employed by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters, including youth and women, and the numerous cases of torture and sexual violence.

"It calls on the authorities to release immediately and unconditionally all arbitrarily detained persons, including political prisoners and media workers," the statement added.

Below is a graphic provided by Statista of the share of the vote claimed by Belarusian strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko during his time in power.

Belarus Election 2020 Statista