While EU leaders discuss Belarus, Lukashenko orders police to put down protests

Belarus riot policemen (OMON) stand in front of the Minsk Tractor Plant to prevent any rally or attempt to organize a strike in Minsk, Belarus, 19 August 2020. [Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA/EFE]

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered his police on Wednesday (19 August) to put down protests in the capital Minsk, signalling an escalation after a week and a half of mass demonstrations against his rule.

Lukashenko’s order came even as European Union leaders were holding an emergency summit over the political crisis in Belarus, long Russia’s most loyal neighbour, which has heavily militarised borders with the EU.

EU leaders were expected to endorse sanctions on Belarusian officials they blame for election fraud following a disputed 9 August election that the opposition said it won.

However, they were expected to steer clear of more dramatic steps that might provoke intervention from Moscow.

“There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind,” Lukashenko said in remarks reported by the official Belta news agency. “People are tired. People demand peace and quiet.”

He ordered the border to be tightened to prevent an influx of “fighters and arms”. Workers at state media who have quit in protest against the government’s policies would not be rehired, he said.

Western officials are trying to head off an escalation along the lines of the crisis in Ukraine six years ago, when a violent crackdown by a pro-Russian leader led to his downfall in a popular uprising, followed by a Russian military intervention and Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict.

“Violence has to stop and a peaceful and inclusive dialogue has to be launched. The leadership of #Belarus must reflect the will of the people,” Charles Michel, the EU summit chairman, wrote in a tweet announcing the start of a video meeting.

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