MINSK, Belarus – The week of unprecedented protests that followed disputed elections was just a start, and the opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko need to step back and gather broader support, an opposition leader said Monday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Alexander Milinkevich likened the protests to a storming that made "cracks in the fortress" of the hard-line government.
But he acknowledged they were not big enough to force change and said the opposition would now seek to get its message to more people in the former Soviet republic of 10 million.
"We have made holes and cracks in the fortress. But if we keep on knocking against it with our heads, especially with few forces, we may lose. That is why we are taking a step back and beginning a siege of this fortress. The siege will be an information attack," he said.
His remarks came two days after a week of protests over the March 19 election. The events culminated Saturday in a clash with riot police who beat demonstrators with truncheons.
The opposition was determined to press ahead.
"There will be a second storming, but we won't wait five years for it," Milinkevich said.
He said the opposition will continue to seek a repeat vote in which Lukashenko would be barred from running and reiterated plans to hold the next large protest April 26.
Milinkevich appealed to the European Union to press harder for the release of hundreds of people arrested in the protests, including another opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin. Courts are trying some of the detainees, with many being sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 days.
A spokesman for the prosecutor's office, Yegor Levai, said a criminal case against Kozulin had been opened, but he declined to say what charges he might face.
"I ask the EU to be tougher in demanding (Kozulin's) release, as well as the release of other political prisoners," Milinkevich said. He thanked Europe and the United States for their solidarity and their criticism of the election, and stressed the need for Western help in making Belarus more open and educating Belarusian students expelled for opposing the government.
"There are 10 million Europeans here ... and they must be helped," he said.
He also criticized Russia, which has expressed approval of the vote, calling its position "absolutely unfair."
The election, in which officials say Lukashenko won a third term with 83 percent of the vote, set off days of demonstrations that drew thousands of people to a central square in Minsk. The protests there ended in a pre-dawn raid Friday after police broke up an opposition tent camp that gave demonstrators an around-the-clock presence.
Milinkevich, who officially received 6.1 percent of the vote, called the election a fraud. The United States and the EU say it was deeply undemocratic and have vowed sanctions against Lukashenko and other officials over the ballot and the arrests that followed. Milinkevich said 1,200 people have been detained.
When protesters returned to the streets Saturday, riot police kept them from the square and forcefully dispersed a group marching to a jail where detained activists were being held, beating people with truncheons and detaining dozens. The clash occurred after some 7,000 demonstrated in a park where Milinkevich announced the creation of a movement for "the liberation of Belarus."
The Foreign Ministry claimed Sunday that police had shown "restraint and patience," and officers resorted to force only after being attacked.
E-mails and cell phone text messages reportedly encouraged supporters to gather Sunday evening at the central October Square.
Lukashenko despises the West and criticism from there fuels his contentions that the West is out to overthrow him. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the statements "are on the border of an anti-Belarusian hysteria."
It is unclear how much support the opposition really has, how much dissent authorities will tolerate or what effect a stream of denunciations from the West will have.
In the interview, Milinkevich called the protests "a revolution of the spirit."
"A huge number of people have demonstrated that they do not want to be slaves, that they have overcome their fear — they are ready to fight for their dignity and for the future of Belarus," he said. "This is a huge success."
"But of course we need 200,000-500,000 people to come out, not 20,000," he added. "Only when we become the majority will we become a force with which the authorities will start negotiating; they won't have any other options."
Milinkevich said the opposition must fight fear and apathy in the face of an "information blockade" by the government, which has virtually complete control over the media.
"Our main goal remains: information, information, information," he said. "If people have information, the dictatorship will collapse like a house of cards."