Prague, 11 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Several thousand Belarusians yesterday marched through the center of the capital Minsk to protest the government plans to integrate their country with Russia.
Police intervened in force to stop the demonstration. Several people were reported by the Russian media to have been injured. Dozens were said to have been arrested.
But the reports also said that the demonstrators managed to burn the Russian flag and an effigy of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, bearing the sign reading "Friend of Russia."
The demonstration was organized by the Belarusian Popular Front, a group opposed to Lukashenka's government. Yuri Khodiko, a leader of the Front, said that the objective was to protest the arrival in Minsk of a Russian parliamentary delegation for discussions about the unfolding process of integration between Belarus and Russia.
The group had received an official permit to hold a gathering of only up to 40 people. But thousands turned up.
Lukashenka has championed the unity with Russia from the moment of his election as President three years ago. An admirer of Soviet traditions, Lukashenka has made Russian the official language of the country, restored Soviet insignia and banned his opponents from using Belarusian national symbols.
Lukashenka repeatedly declared disdain for democratic methods. Using referenda, he has successfully imposed authoritarian rule, setting up bogus parliamentary bodies, suspending labor unions, closing opposition newspapers, muzzling the media and actively suppressing any forms of active opposition. And still, Lukashenka has enjoyed considerable public support, particularly with regard to his drive to establish close relations with Russia.
It seems that many Belarusians long for Russian protection and aid. Belarus is a very poor country. It is also fundamentally conservative, relying on central direction and command in economic activity. Lukashenka's rule has only strengthened these tendencies, with the President openly opposed to any reforms.
But it is also important to realize that Belarus has been the most russified and sovietized of all East European and Central Asian countries that once formed parts of the Soviet Union.
A recent sociological study by Marek Sliwinski, professor at the University of Geneva, has found massive public support for unity with Russia. This support has been particularly strong in the rural parts of the country, where only a few can speak the Belarusian language and almost all express preference for a strong central power.
But the study has also found a degree of support for a separate national Belarusian statehood. These attitudes have been prevalent in northern and western parts of the country, and in big cities, particularly in Minsk.
Belarus appears then as a country torn by contradictory trends: one, strongly pro-soviet and russified, and the other, focused on national self-determination. The former is certainly stronger, but the latter is also politically important.
The existence of those crosscurrents is an important political factor, which would have to be considered during any integrative processes. Yesterday's demonstration in Minsk has been a clear reminder of this.
Last April, Belarus and Russia signed a unity declaration, forming a basis for an economic Rcommunity.S But there was little integrative progress since that time.
Last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Lukashenka agreed to push for a closer union, after Yeltsin declared in the state-of-the-Federation address that "reintegration" with Belarus was Moscow's foreign policy priority.
In three weeks, on April 2, a bilateral commission overseeing the integrative process is to meet in Moscow to plan further steps. But no details have been provided on what direction and pace these steps may take.