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Protests Continue in Belarus Following Contested Election

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  • Nationwide protests have been raging throughout Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served for 26 years and is widely considered Europes “last dictator,” won an election many believed was rigged.
  • In addition to controlling the vote count, media, and security forces, Lukashenko also arrested many of his political opponents in the race leading up to the election, forcing the rest to flee.
  • He was challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the men he arrested, and despite overwhelming popular support for her, she only won 10% of the vote. 
  • When she went to contest the results, she was held in a room for several hours an then disappeared, reappearing on video the next day to announce that she had fled the country. 
  • Since Sunday, protests have continued all over the country. Security forces have responded violently and arrested over 6,000 people.

Protests Continue

Protests continued in cities and towns across Belarus on Wednesday for the fourth consecutive day following the re-election of the country’s long-term leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

On Sunday, following the news that Lukashenko had won another term, demonstrations broke out nationwide in what has been described as the biggest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk and other cities on Sunday. According to reports and footage, security forces responded by trying to break up protests by force, beating the demonstrators and using tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons, and other projectiles.

Also on Sunday, the country was hit with massive internet and cellular blackouts, and many social media sites were blocked. While Lukashenko denied that the government had shut down the internet and blamed the outage on a large cyberattack from abroad, experts have said there is no evidence of that.

Intermittent outages resumed throughout the week, though on Wednesday it was reported that the internet had largely been restored. The protests, however, still continued, and security forces have kept clashing violently with protesters, using force at demonstrations in multiple cities.

In one city, officials said police used live ammunition after protesters tried to attack them with steel bars. Government authorities said Wednesday that they have arrested more than 6,000 nationwide in the last three days alone.

Anti-Lukashenko Movement Grows

The unrest follows months of smaller protests leading up to the election, where Lukashenko, who has served as the president of Belarus for more than 26 years, was running for his sixth term.

He was first elected when the office was established in 1994, which, not by coincidence, was also the last election in the country that outside observers have said was free and fair.

Since taking office, Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe’s “last dictator,” has kept tight control over the elections. In addition to controlling vote counting, he also controls Belarus’ huge security system as well the state media, which always publishes news favoring him and criticizing his opponents.

Throughout his authoritarian rule, the government has continually and frequently suppressed opposition, but heading into last Sunday’s election, Lukashenko was experiencing the largest and most significant opposition to his rule since he assumed power.

Over time, his policies have become more and more unpopular as they have failed to modernize and grow Belarus’ economy. Lukashenko was also facing a lot of anger over his handling of the pandemic, which he had repeatedly downplayed, even suggesting at one point that drinking vodka could cure the coronavirus.

In the months leading up to the election, protesters took to the street to demonstrate against Lukashenko, who responded by cracking down. He claimed that the protests were part of a foreign plot and began mass arrests.

According to Viasna, a Belarussian human-rights group, there were more than 1,500 arbitrary detentions throughout the whole election campaign, which started in early May.

In addition to protesters and journalists, Lukashenko also began arresting several of his major political opponents in the upcoming election on charges widely believed to be false.

Then in July, with all his opponents either in jail or forced to flee the country to avoid being in jail, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular YouTuber who was one of Lukashenko’s jailed opponents, registered to run. She became the united opposition candidate and received backing from the others who were unable to run.

For weeks, she went around the country campaigning, sometimes drawing crowds estimated at over 60,000, making them some of the largest political rallies in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But even before Election Day, the opposition expected the results would be illegitimate. On Sunday, the state-run election authority declared that Lukashenko had won with 80% of the vote and that Tikhanovskaya had only won just under 10%.

Tikhanovskaya Flees

Immediately, the opposition and many other international governments dismissed the outcome as clearly rigged. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and independent observers reportedly claimed that there was widespread ballot stuffing and falsifications.

As she had indicated before, Tikhanovskaya said she would refuse to accept the results. On Monday, she went to the Central Election Commission headquarters to formally contest the vote count. 

According to a supporter who said she went with her, Tikhanovskaya was in a room for three hours with two senior security service officials. About an hour into the meeting, the supporter said she saw several people enter the room with black bags that contained what looked like video equipment.

After another two hours, she was told that Tikhanovskaya had left through another entrance. She did not see her after that. 

On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya posted a video on YouTube saying she had fled the country, and that she did so for the sake of her two children.

“I made a very hard decision, I’ve made this decision on my own,” she said. “I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me but god forbid you will ever have to face the choice that I had to face.” 

However, the same day, another video of Tikhanovskaya was released that many speculate was clearly taken under duress, likely while at the commission headquarters.

In the video, reading from a prepared notecard, she called on the people to Belarus to stop protesting and insisted “the nation has made its choice” and Lukashenko had won.

While Tikhanovskaya did not say where she had fled to, her campaign said she was in Lithuania, a fact that was later confirmed by the country’s Foreign Minister.

See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (BBC) (The Guardian)

International

Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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