Belarus' authoritarian leader visits his foes in prison

Kiev, Ukraine (AP) - The authoritarian president of Belarus visited a prison on Saturday to speak to opposition activists jailed for contesting his re-election, widely viewed as rigged and sparking two months of protests.
President Alexander Lukashenko chatted for more than four hours with his political enemies in prison in Minsk prison, owned by the Belarusian State Security Committee, which is still known as the Soviet-era KGB.
Lukashenko's office said, "The President's aim was to hear everyone's opinion." Among the 11 detained activists who attended the meeting were several members of the opposition Coordinating Council and Viktor Babariko, the former head of a major Russian bank . Babariko sought to challenge Lukashenko but was banned from the race and has remained in prison since his arrest in May for being dismissed as political.
Lukashenko's re-election in the August 9 vote was widely viewed as rigged as the Belarusian leader's public authority for 26 years, his carefree response to the coronavirus pandemic and the deteriorating economy had been widespread.
Violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in the first few days after the vote, in which thousands were arrested and hundreds beaten by police, sparked international outrage and helped increase the ranks of demonstrators.
The main opposition challenger in the vote, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania after the elections under pressure from the authorities, announced Lukashenko's visit to the prison due to continued demonstrations and urged that new elections be continued.
"At that meeting, Lukashenko recognized the existence of political prisoners whom he had previously dismissed as criminals," she said in a statement. "Today's event is a result of our pressure."
The European Union and the United States said the elections were neither free nor fair. They hit dozens of Belarusian officials with sanctions for their role in allegedly fraudulent elections and crackdown on protests, but they didn't target Lukashenko himself.
EU members Poland and Lithuania spoke out in favor of Belarusian opposition politicians, which led to diplomatic tensions, including the expulsion of Polish and Lithuanian diplomats by the Belarusian government. These two countries responded by withdrawing their ambassadors to Minsk.
Late Friday, Britain temporarily recalled its ambassador to Belarus, Jacqueline Perkins, in response to the Belarusian government's decision to expel Polish and Lithuanian diplomats.
In a tweet, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab condemned the decision and described it as "completely unjustified". He said the ambassador's temporary recall "for consultations on the situation in Belarus" should show "solidarity" with the people of the country.
The government has tried to quell protests by arresting hundreds of protesters, prosecuting some top activists and forcing others to leave the country. However, the massive demonstrations continued and peaked on Sundays when up to 100,000 people flooded the streets of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Another big protest is planned for this Sunday.
Hundreds of women marched through the Belarusian capital on Saturday to protest against political repression and to call for new elections. Several participants in the rally were arrested.
Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and ambassador to France who had joined the opposition coordinating council and was pressured by authorities to leave the country, said the meeting reflected the weakness of the Belarusian leader.
"Lukashenko was forced to sit down at the negotiating table with the people he had imprisoned," said Latushko in a statement and called for the release of all political prisoners.
Observers saw Lukashenko's visit to the prison as part of an effort to steal the thunder of the protesters by offering vaguely described reforms, such as his proposal to draft a new constitution. During the meeting in prison, Lukashenko stressed that "the constitution cannot be written in the street," his office said, without giving further details of the meeting.
"After two months of protests and tough repression, Lukashenko is trying to de-escalate the situation," said Valery Karbalevich, an independent political expert from Minsk.
“The discussion of a new constitution is an attempt by the government to emulate dialogue. This would allow Lukashenko to drown out the protests in talks, reduce tensions and push his agenda both within the country and against foreign players, "Karbalevich said.

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