By Stefan J. Bos
On Sunday, at least tens of thousands of people demanded the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko. Unofficial estimates for the opposition gathering ranged between 100,000 and 220,000.
However, friends and foes agree that this was the most massive opposition rally in the decades-long history of Belarus.
Many chanted, “Shame, shame, shame.” Demonstrators disagree with officials who claim that Lukashenko won this month's presidential election with 80 percent of the vote. "I made my choice, but my vote was thrown in the bin," a protestor said. "So I'll keep coming out till our president leaves. He is already tired, and it is time for a change in power."
On Monday, the staff of state-television joined ongoing strikes against the president. Television channels ran repeats when personnel walked out to protest censorship and the election results.
Other strike actions were due following massive protests.
However, the 65-year-old Lukashenko remains defiant. And he suggested that he made clear he may even ask Russia to help in a crackdown on protests. "I had a long and detailed conversation with the president of Russia [Vladimir Putin] today about the situation. I must say, I was even a bit surprised [that the Russian president] is absolutely aware of what is happening," he explained to reporters over the weekend.
"And we agreed with him, under our first request, comprehensive assistance will be provided. To ensure the security of the Republic of Belarus," Lukashenko added.
At least some seem to support him in a nation where many jobs are also dependent on loyalty. An official report said 65,000 people attended a counter-rally for the president. But unofficial estimates were as low as 10,000. He told them they were defending the nation.
"Dear friends, I didn't call you to defend me," he told a crowd outside the capital Minsk's main government building. "You came to defend your country, independence, your families, wives, sisters, and children for the first time in a quarter-century.”
Amid the turmoil, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has suggested she could act as an interim leader. But Lukashenko has so far rejected international offers for mediation.