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Belarus: Tension Rises As Police Clash With Protesters

  • Jan de Weydenthal



Prague, 19 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Riot police Sunday moved again onto the streets of the Belarusian capital Minsk, forcibly dispersing yet another popular demonstration against the methods of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Several people were injured when police beat protesters with truncheons. Numerous others were detained. The demonstration, which involved thousands of people marching in the city's center, was filmed by a Russian television crew and later showed to the Russian NTV audience.

Local Belarusian media made no mention of the clashes. And the Belarusian Security Council, an agency representing the views of the President, charged Sunday that the NTV was spreading lies about the protests in Minsk.

"There has been nothing of the kind on the street of Minsk," the council said in a statement, threatening to take the network off the air in Belarus.

In a related development, Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir is reported to have threatened to resign unless Lukashenka changes his methods.

The current turmoil focuses on Lukashenka's drive to expand his powers in a referendum scheduled for next week, November 24. His opponents charge that this would impose a full-fledged dictatorship.

Lukashenka's moves were rejected by the parliament and ruled illegal by the country's Constitutional Court. The president has ignored those protests.

Last week, Lukashenka sacked the head of the national Electoral Commission, Viktor Hanchar, after the official had qualified the way the referendum was prepared and conducted as "a national disgrace," and said that he would not sanction its results.

The government last weekend opened the polls for "potential absentee voters," that is those who might find it difficult to cast ballots at the scheduled time. This only made it possible to manipulate ballots, prompting Hanchar to protest the procedure.

But Lukashenka presses on, ignoring public protests, political criticism and legal challenges. He has done so for more than two years, ever since his election in 1993. He has suspended labor unions, muzzled the media and put down opposition.

During recent months, he forcibly suppressed several mass demonstrations, staged mainly on the streets of Minsk and other large cities. Many of his critics have been periodically detained, and top opposition leaders were forced into exile.

Lukashenka claims acting in the interest of Belarus and its people. But his policies seem to center on two objectives alone: full integration of the country with Russia and the expansion of his personal power. There have been no benefits for the public. As the Belarusian economy has almost collapsed, this only pushed down the population's standard of living to the verge of poverty. The union with Russia is still far from being consumed.

But Lukashenka is likely to win his referendum. He still enjoys popularity among rural and impoverished Belarusian masses, who see in him a valiant fighter against corruption in government and a decisive and strong leader. After all, he told them so. And no one else is allowed to tell them otherwise.
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