‘Happy birthday, you rat’: Belarus leader Lukashenko takes call from Putin as protests enter fourth week

Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to begin the fourth week of daily protests demanding that the country’s authoritarian president resign.

Belarusians chanting “happy birthday, you rat” and flying white-and-red opposition flags gathered near President Alexander Lukashenko’s residence on Sunday (local time) to keep up pressure on the veteran leader.

Mr Lukashenko, 66, is struggling to contain weeks of protests and strikes since winning an August 9 election his opponents say was rigged.

He denies electoral fraud and has said the protests are backed from abroad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used a birthday phone-call to invite Mr Lukashenko to visit Moscow, a sign of the Kremlin’s willingness to back Mr Lukashenko as he grapples with the unrest and the threat of new Western sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko side beside each other.
Despite the birthday phone call, Russia has appeared hesitant to become too involved in the unrest.(AP: Mikhail Klimentyev)

Protesters streamed into central Minsk, carrying balloons, flowers and flags, in the afternoon.

Belarus had a white-red-white flag for a brief period in the early 1990s and it has become a symbol of its anti-government protests.

Protesters initially tried to gather at Independence Square in Minsk, but barriers and riot police blocked it off.

They then streamed down one of the capital’s main avenues, past hulking olive-green prisoner transport vehicles.

Protesters wearing red and white stand in a line facing a row of armed police holding riot shields.
Police say 125 people were arrested, but some say the number was higher.(AP: Tut.By)

Police said 125 people were arrested, but Ales Bilyatsky of the Viasna human rights organisation said more than 200 were detained.

The marchers, chanting “freedom” and “resign”, eventually reached the outskirts of the presidential palace, which was blocked off by shield-bearing riot police.

There were no official figures on the crowd size, but some opposition sources claimed it exceeded 100,000.

Largest protests to date

Demonstrators shout slogans carrying a sign saying 'He's a murderer - not president', as hundreds of people march.
Mr Lukashenko has repeatedly blamed Western countries for encouraging protests.(AP: Petr David Josek)

Mr Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has been defiant but beleaguered, unable to put down the largest, most sustained wave of protests yet in this Eastern European nation of 9.5 million people.

He has refused to rerun the election, which both the European Union and the United States have said was not free or fair, and also refused offers from Baltic nations to help mediate the situation.

Mr Lukashenko said he has reached an agreement with Mr Putin that Russia will send in security help if asked.

But Russia has appeared hesitant to get involved too deeply in the Belarus unrest.

A woman holds a red and white flag in her raised arms as she stands in a large crowd.
The white-red-white flag has become a symbol of anti-Government protests.(AP: Tut.By)

Mr Lukashenko has consistently blamed Western countries for encouraging the protests and contends that NATO is repositioning forces along Belarus’ western border with the aim of intervening in the unrest, a claim the alliance strongly denies.

On Sunday, the Belarusian Defence Ministry said it was conducting military exercises in the Grodno region, near the borders of Poland and Lithuania, simulating defending against an invasion.

Belarus last Saturday cracked down hard on foreign news media that have been covering the protests, deporting at least four Russian journalists, including two from The Associated Press.