Belarus opposition leader urges talks with authorities

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The leader of Belarus’ political opposition announced a nationwide online vote about starting mediated talks with government authorities to end the political crisis that has engulfed the country since authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko’s election to a sixth term last summer.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in August and drew widespread popular support, said in a video statement that “there is a crisis in the country, and we can only resolve it through talks with international mediation.”

She urged Belarusians to take part in an online vote for “talks with those representatives of the regime that are prepared to think about the future and make mature decisions rather than drawing the crisis out to a point of a total disaster.”

Tsikhanouskaya said the votes of Belarusians “will help get decisive steps” from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate the talks with Lukashenko’s government.

“They are ready to organize a platform (for the talks) and act as mediators, as well as to force the regime to negotiate,” the opposition leader said in a video recorded in Lithuania, where she sought refuge after leaving Belarus under pressure from the authorities.

Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to recognize the results of the presidential election that won Lukashenko his sixth term in office with 80% of the vote, saying the election was riddled with fraud.

Lukashenko’s disputed reelection triggered months of mass protests, and his government unleashed a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Human rights activists say more than 30,000 people have been detained since the demonstrations began, with thousands beaten.

The West has condemned the conduct of the election and the brutal crackdown on protesters. The United States and the European Union have said that the election was neither free nor fair and urged Lukashenko to engage in talks with the opposition. Lukashenko has rejected the demand, announcing a constitutional reform instead and hinting that he might step down after it’s implemented.

Tsikhanouskaya said Thursday the protests will continue.

“There are many scenarios of how the events in Belarus are going to unfold, and all of them — even those that are scary, long and forceful — will inevitably lead to negotiations,” she said.

The online vote that started Thursday is facilitated by the independent platform Golos, which launched in Belarus last year to monitor the Aug. 9 presidential election. As of Thursday afternoon, the Golos website said that over 200,000 people had voted for the talks between the opposition and the authorities.

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