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A Week After Election, Belarus Sees Giant Protests Against Lukashenko

NOEL KING, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people in Belarus were out on the streets this weekend. They're demanding that the president, Alexander Lukashenko, step down. They say a recent election was rigged in his favor. He's been in power for 26 years. Hanna Yahorava is an activist who lives in the capital, Minsk. She was at the protests this weekend. Hi, Hanna.

HANNA YAHORAVA: Hello. Good morning.

KING: Good morning to you. So these were the biggest protests in Belarus' history. What was it like this weekend being out there?

YAHORAVA: Wow. It was amazing. It was first time for the last 26 years I was able to see all this beautiful, intelligent, like, nice people all around the country. In Minsk, it were more than 200,000 people just in the center.

KING: Yeah.

YAHORAVA: And all the major cities also joined the protests.

KING: OK. So it sounds like it was a very positive event. I want to ask you about something that we've been hearing, which is that Belarus' security forces have taken protesters from the streets. They've detained them. And they've tortured them. Did any of that happen this weekend?

YAHORAVA: Yes. It was a lot of cases in the beginning of this the previous week. But yesterday, there were few detentions on the streets but not by police, by the people who were not recognized in the public places.

KING: Sorry. When you say people who are not recognized, what do you mean?

YAHORAVA: They wear not uniform, but just the normal cloth. So you couldn't find out who's those people who detained activists on the streets after the end of the protest.

KING: Oh, I understand. So you can't quite say that they're security forces because they're not wearing the uniforms of security forces. I understand that some of your friends are among those who have been detained. What do they say has been happening to them in detention?

YAHORAVA: Unfortunately, yes. I have a few friends - they're close friends - detained and beaten by police during the demonstrations, especially in the first days of protests - it were just right and after the end of the electoral day, last Sunday. It was 9th of August. And also Monday and Tuesday were very active regarding the street protests. Many people there detained just being outside on the streets of Minsk not really participating. And what happened? They were detained in a very brutal way. And they were beaten, you know, in a very brutal way as well - beaten at the police station, first of all. And also, a few of my friends, they are journalists. And cameras and mobile phones were just crashed by people who detained them.

KING: OK. So clearly a resistance to these protests. Let me ask you a slightly bigger picture question. Alexander Lukashenko, your president, has now appealed to Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, for help. Russia is an ally of Belarus. Putin has reportedly said, yes, he will offer security assistance. Does this concern you?

YAHORAVA: Of course. We're all worrying about it because we don't want any Russian support here because we are very peaceful protesters. We don't need any assistance from Russia. And it's clearly demonstrated by all the previous events. So I - we're really considering to stay in a peaceful way. And I really hope that Russia will understand it, it will never invite any, you know, army forces here.

KING: Hanna, why do you think these protests are happening now? After 26 years of Lukashenko in power, why 200,000 people in the streets in Minsk alone at this point?

YAHORAVA: Unfortunately. We have a dictatorship for more than 20 years. Exactly 26 years, the same person took power and never wanted to give it to someone else. And people are just sick and tired. And also, COVID crisis was ignored by president for a long time at all. So that's why people are wanting new president and free and fair elections.

KING: Hanna Yahorava, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate your time.

YAHORAVA: Thank you so much. Thank you for your attention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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