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An Update On Ongoing Protests In Belarus

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

That's from the streets of Belarus today, where protests continue over the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. The government is also holding counterprotests in the capital of Minsk. Lukashenko, who is seeking support from Russia, has been president for 26 years. He's now facing challenges on a number of fronts, from the streets and from the European Union, which is threatening to impose new sanctions on Belarus over its violent response to these demonstrations. There have been at least two deaths. People have been beaten. And many have been rounded up and detained. Dan Peleschuk is a freelance journalist - he was detained on the street in Central Minsk, and he's on the line with us now from Kiev. Welcome to the program.

DAN PELESCHUK: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You left after your arrest and release. Protests, though, have been going on for days in Belarus and are continuing. Tell us when you were detained in Minsk and the circumstances of your arrest.

PELESCHUK: I was detained on Monday evening - about 7 o'clock. Now, this was the night after the presidential election, which took place on Sunday, which was widely regarded as rigged in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have taken about 80% of the vote over his challengers. And now protests had erupted the evening of the elections - late in the evening. And so I was walking in a part of Central Minsk. I was approached by a small group of black-clad, armored, very intimidating riot police and immediately questioned. And it was only, really, a matter of seconds before I was hauled away into this hulking prisoner transport vehicle that was parked nearby.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It turns out that the secret police force there in Belarus is a big part of what's happening right now. What can you tell us about them?

PELESCHUK: When we discuss the police brutality in Belarus, the discussion really centers on a unit of police called the OMON - that is their acronym - and they're essentially the riot police. They are violence-crazed thugs with great authority and a great amount of resources by the state. They're very highly feared. They are very motivated. And many of them are very, very ideological. They view any form of dissent as, essentially, a traitorous act.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we get into what's happening right now, can you tell us a little bit about the protesters that you've met?

PELESCHUK: So the protests are really attracting an incredible cross-section of society. If you talk to sort of analysts and people watching the situation, they'll say the same thing - that Belarusians have been sort of mobilized politically in the past couple of years as they've watched their economy increasingly stagnate. And so the people that you meet at these protests are really a variety of people - students, techies, small business owners, factory workers. There is no sense of radicalization among these protesters. There are no kind of far-right elements. There are no particularly anarchist elements. For lack of better words, it's sort of a united front of social discontent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've seen the heads of Baltic states ask for new elections in Belarus, but President Alexander Lukashenko met with his ally, Russia's leader Vladimir Putin, on Saturday. Russia and Belarus, of course, have an integrated economic zone. They have a military alliance. What do you read into that meeting?

PELESCHUK: The first thing that comes to mind is a calculation that Mr. Putin has to make. You know, he has to decide whether and how much he wants to help Alexander Lukashenko, who, at this point, by all accounts, seems to have disgraced himself so much amid such a vast proportion of the population, it may not be in Putin's interests to provide Lukashenko any more cover. Now, that's speculation, but I think there's some substance to that. And Lukashenko, of course, has to make a calculation of his own. And that is if Putin is indeed, you know, welcoming him - would welcome him to Russia, how willing Lukashenko is to essentially give up his own and his country's sovereignty. And if he sort of gives up political sovereignty to Mr. Putin, that would be, certainly, the beginning of the end of his rule as an independent strongman in Belarus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We heard reports on Friday of some riot police putting down their shields and embracing the protesters in Minsk. Do you think these protests are starting to gain real traction?

PELESCHUK: I do. I was simply stunned at the amount of people that were lining one of the main roads out of the capital and toward the airport. It was primarily led by women dressed in white - were waving, you know, white flags. White has become the sort of symbol of the opposition - a sign of purity, a sign of hope. And I was simply stunned and, indeed, sort of overcome emotionally to see these hopeful young and old protesters cheering on the streets. It does seem that the anger against Mr. Lukashenko has passed a point of no return, especially when you factor in the strikes by factory workers across the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's freelance reporter Dan Peleschuk, who was arrested in Belarus. Thank you very much.

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