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The Significance Of Ongoing Protests In Belarus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's a familiar story. People march in the streets demanding their democratic rights. Police beat the protesters and arrest demonstrators. We're not talking about Hong Kong or Syria. This is in Belarus, where a presidential election on Sunday appears to have been rigged. Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for a quarter century and claims he won 80% of the vote. His opponent, a political novice named Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, says she won a solid majority in precincts where the ballots were counted honestly.

In spite of the beatings and arrests, workers are striking, and protesters are in the streets demanding a new election. We are joined now by journalist Nataliya Vasiliyeva, who is covering all this for The Telegraph. Welcome.

NATALIYA VASILIYEVA: Hi. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: We have seen videos of police in riot gear beating people with batons. Thousands have been arrested, including journalists. And I understand many people were released today. What have you learned about their treatment in detention?

VASILIYEVA: Many of them have come out of the detention center in Minsk with horrifying injuries and bruises that tell a story of itself of the mistreatment and something that can essentially be called torture at the hands of law enforcement officials.

SHAPIRO: Given this brutality, are you surprised to see that people are still out demonstrating? I mean, these are the biggest protests since Belarus won independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.

VASILIYEVA: It is fairly surprising because what we saw in recent days was completely unprecedented use of violence against peaceful, unarmed protesters. But I think what happened on Wednesday was a bit of a game-changer. This is when a group of women came out with flowers on the streets of Minsk. There were riot police around, but they did not touch them. And I think it inspired a lot of people. What we're seeing in central Minsk today is something that I would describe as the largest protest so far, something like 20 to 30,000 people. There were reports of police trucks moving in, but we haven't seen any police response yet. It has been peaceful so far.

SHAPIRO: How significant is it that factory workers are joining this movement? What do they see in the opposition?

VASILIYEVA: That's a huge game-changer. I actually spent this afternoon in the western town of Grodno, which is home to quite a large number of industrial sites and factories. And workers there told me that people are genuinely insulted by the fact that election official came out with an 80% support for Lukashenko, which is something that people on the ground don't feel as a genuine result. And yes, I would say it is a game-changer that we're seeing factory workers coming out to protest because a lot of those factories are essentially the backbone of the Belarusian economy, like the iconic tractor works or the country's two oil refineries.

SHAPIRO: And what has Lukashenko said about all this?

VASILIYEVA: Well, it is interesting because he kept silent about it for a while, and he came out with two statements this afternoon. He derided factory workers for coming out to protest, which I know that some of the workers have found incredibly insulting. He also called on parents to stop their kids from going out to protest. And he also blamed the foreign powers and foreign actors for instigating the protests.

SHAPIRO: In so many other countries, these kinds of situations have led to an even more violent crackdown and the ruler hanging on to power. How do you see this going?

VASILIYEVA: It just depends on how threatened Lukashenko feels, whether he feels that there's any way out and, again, whether his security apparatus and secret services remain loyal to him and if they continue to think that it's in their interests to keep protecting Lukashenko.

SHAPIRO: That's journalist Nataliya Vasiliyeva with the Daily Telegraph reporting from Minsk. Thank you, and stay safe.

VASILIYEVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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