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Belarus jails two prominent activists

Belarus today jailed two prominent activists for ten days as the country’s exiled opposition leader declared a ‘peaceful revolution’ is underway. 

Olga Kovalkova and Siarhei Dyleuski were brought before separate courts and jailed as protests continued against the 26-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.  

Kolvakova is the main representative still in Belarus of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Dyleuski has led strikes at the Minsk Tractor Factory, one of the country’s biggest plants. 

The two are leaders of the opposition Coordination Council, set up last week with the stated aim of opening negotiations with the government. 

Lukashenko called the council an illegal attempt to seize power and prosecutors launched a criminal case against it.

The council includes dozens of figures representing broad swathes of society, among them author Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who has been summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

Belarusian media released photos of Kolvakova seated in court in a metal cage. Photos of Dyleuski in court were not available. 

Another opposition council member, Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and head of the main state drama theatre, was questioned by investigators but not arrested. 

He emerged saying he would go back to work and the council’s activities were not illegal.

Despite most major opposition figures being in jail or in exile, Lukashenko has so far failed to put down popular protests against his 26-year rule.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets over the weekend in what is thought to be one of the largest protests in Belarus’s history. 

Lukashenko has denied election rigging, called the protesters ‘rats’, and claimed they are being funded from abroad. 

Exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya today declared that a ‘peaceful revolution’ is underway in Belarus. 

In a speech to the EU from Lithuania, where she is in hiding, Tikhanovskaya called on world leaders to back calls for free and fair elections to be held as soon as possible.

The 37-year-old insisted that protesters are neither pro-Russian or pro-EU, saying that they are simply pro-democracy, and want the right to decide for themselves.

Tikhanovskaya ran against Lukashenko in Belarus’s election earlier this month, sparking mass protests when he claimed victory with 80 per cent of the vote – a result that is widely thought to be fraudulent.

Speaking via video-link to the EU Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tikhanovskaya declared: ‘Belarus has woken up. 

‘We are not the opposition anymore, we are the majority now. The peaceful revolution is taking place.

‘The revolution in Belarus is not a geopolitical revolution. It is neither a pro-Russian, nor anti-Russian revolution, it is neither and anti-EU nor pro-EU revolution. 

‘It is a democratic revolution. It is the striving of the nation to decide for itself, it is the striving of the people to freely and fairly elect their leaders and decide their destiny.

‘The revolution in Belarus is not a violent revolution, it is a peaceful striving of the people for liberty and freedom, for self-determination and basic dignity.

‘I call on all the countries of the world to respect the fundamental right of the country for self-determination.

‘I call on all the countries of the world to respect the territorial integrity of Belarus,’ she added, in seeming reference to Russia’s threat to send troops to the country. 

In a protest today, thousands gathered at the Ministry of Education to demonstrate against a threat by Lukashenko to fire schoolteachers who do not support his government. 

Rallies have typically attracted thousands during the week, swelling to tens of thousands on weekends.

‘I have come so that teachers are not afraid, so that their voice can be heard, so that they can work even if they have a different view from the authorities,’ said a literature teacher who gave her name as Svetlana.

Lukashenko has threatened to fire any teachers who do not support the government. 

Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania after the election amid fears that she was about to be arrested.

Belarus is the closest ally to Russia of all former Soviet republics, and Lukashenko’s fate is widely seen as in the hands of the Kremlin.

While the Kremlin wants to keep the country within its sphere of influence, the fate of Lukashenko does not appear to be its primary concern. 

Putin has been in contact with Lukashenko, a personal friend of his, since the vote – and in a phone call on Sunday offered to send doses of Russia’s controversial coronavirus vaccine to the country.

The deal means that Belarus will effectively be participating in Phase 3 trials of the vaccine, which has been approved for use but has not undergone mass testing.

Lukashenko said the two leaders also discussed the situation both inside and on its outer periphery, ‘especially in the western direction’.  

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