The main challenger in Belarus’s disputed election has called on President Alexander Lukashenko to cede power as police clashed with protesters in the capital Minsk and other cities for the second evening in a row.
Police were seen dragging protesters out of a crowd and beating them with truncheons on Monday. More than 30 people were arrested, according to the Reuters news agency.
“I want changes in my country. I am sick and tired. The Lukashenko dictatorship must be cancelled,” a male protester told Al Jazeera correspondent Step Vaessen in Minsk.
“I want [to] live in a free country, I want my children to live in a free country. I want them to have a future,” said another protester.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s main challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said she would not join the demonstrations to avoid any provocation to the protesters.
Tikhanovskaya, whose surprise candidacy posed the biggest challenge to the veteran leader in years, said Sunday’s presidential vote had been rigged and accused authorities of resorting to force to cling to power.
“The voters made their choice but the authorities did not hear us,” the 37-year-old told a news conference after police used stun grenades, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse crowds across Belarus.
“The authorities should think about how to peacefully hand over power to us,” she said. “I consider myself the winner of this election.”
Official results handed Lukashenko, in power for more than a quarter of a century, an 80 percent share of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher who entered the race after her blogger husband was jailed, took just 9.9 percent.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995, and the run-up to the vote saw authorities jail Lukashenko’s rivals and open criminal investigations into others who voiced opposition.
Germany called for the European Union to discuss sanctions on Belarus that were lifted in 2016 to foster better relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used a congratulatory telegram to nudge Lukashenko to accept deeper ties between the two nations, which the Belarusian leader has previously rejected as an assault on his country’s independence.
Tikhanovskaya, a stay-at-home mother, galvanised the opposition during the election campaign, attracting tens of thousands of supporters to the ex-Soviet country’s biggest demonstrations in years.
The opposition now wants a vote recount at polling stations where there were problems, her aides said, adding that protests would continue.
There was no immediate response to that offer from Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager who has kept Belarus under tight control since 1994.
He faces his biggest challenge in years to hold onto power amid discontent over his handling of the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and human rights abuses.
But Lukashenko signalled he would not step down.
“The response will be appropriate. We won’t allow the country to be torn apart,” the 65-year-old leader was quoted by the Belta news agency as saying.
Lukashenko repeated allegations that shadowy forces abroad were trying to manipulate protesters he called “sheep” in order to topple him, something he said he would never allow.
“They are trying to orchestrate mayhem,” said Lukashenko. “But I have already warned: there will be no revolution.”