Tens of thousands of people took to the streets for a sixth consecutive day demanding that Lukashenko step down. Protesters were joined by workers at some of the state-owned industrial plants that are the centrepiece of his Soviet-style economic model.
As the crowd converged on the parliament building on Independence Square in Minsk, at least two helmeted security officers lowered their riot shields, prompting women to run forward to hug them and offer flowers.
In a carnival atmosphere, marchers held up balloons, flags and placards saying “we will not forget, we will not forgive”. Horns from passing cars blared in solidarity.
In a rare climbdown, the government earlier apologised for the use of force as it freed more than 2000 protesters from detention.
Several bore heavy bruises and complained of beatings, cramped conditions and starvation rations inside the cells. The government denied abusing detainees.
One teacher trembled and wept quietly as she held up flowers outside the State Philharmonic concert hall, along with a placard reading: “I’m a teacher, and I want to be proud of that!”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the bloc’s chief executive, called for sanctions on those “who violated democratic values or abused human rights in Belarus”.
Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told his Swiss counterpart in a call that Minsk was ready for “constructive and objective dialogue with foreign partners” about issues related to the election, the state news agency BelTA reported.
Russia, which has nudged Lukashenko into accepting closer political and economic ties, this week expressed concern over what it depicted as attempts by external forces to destabilise Belarus.
Lukashenko, a 65-year-old who once ran a Soviet collective farm, has faced increasing anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as a sluggish economy and civil rights.
The official election result handed him a landslide victory with 80 per cent of the vote, compared to around 10 per cent for Tsikhanouskaya. Washington said the vote “was not free and fair”.
State television showed him calmly telling a meeting: “I’m still alive, and not abroad.”
But even sections of society normally seen as loyal have begun to dare to show dissent.
Several television presenters and journalists from the tightly controlled state media resigned this week in solidarity with the protesters.
Thousands of workers protested on Friday at the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ), which makes trucks and buses, chanting “Shame on you!” and “Go!”, echoing the unrest seen at several major factories this week. At the Grodno Azot chemical plant, a sea of workers in orange helmets clapped and cheered “prison!”
Tsikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher, emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to take her husband’s place in the election campaign after he was jailed. She has now led some of the biggest protests against Lukashenko since he came to power with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after the election, she fled to Lithuania, saying it was for the sake of her children. On Friday, she called for the international community to facilitate talks with the authorities and said she wanted to set up a council to enable a transfer of power, a proposal that was swiftly endorsed by the president of Lithuania.
Lukashenko has alleged a foreign-backed plot to destabilise Belarus and dismissed the demonstrators as criminals and people without work.