Foreign Desk Report
Minsk: Thousands of students boycotted the start of the school year in Belarus on Tuesday and signs of a possible rift appeared in an opposition alliance that has led weeks of rallies and protests against veteran President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko faces the biggest challenge of his 26-year rule since claiming victory in an election last month that opponents say was rigged. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and shows no sign of backing down despite the threat of Western sanctions. In a rare public reproach, his main challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, issued a statement criticizing the strategy of another opposition group with which she formed an alliance during the election campaign.
Tsikhanouskaya fled into exile two days after the Aug. 9 election. From her new base in Lithuania, she declared herself the rightful winner and launched an opposition council with the stated aim of ensuring a peaceful transfer of power. Tsikhanouskaya said on Tuesday the council “should not be dominated by any political party”, after opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova and the team of jailed presidential candidate Viktor Babariko announced the creation of a party called ‘Together’.
She also said the declared aim of Babariko and Kolesnikova’s camp to enact constitutional reform was a distraction from the main goal of removing Lukashenko and holding new elections.
Kolesnikova’s camp issued a conciliatory statement in response, saying it did not wish to disrupt the work of the council, and that it backed Tsikhanouskaya’s call for new elections and her electoral program.
Many state-run schools were used as polling stations and teachers helped count ballots in the election, which the election commission said Lukashenko won with an 80% vote share to secure a sixth term.