Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been cracking down on dissent over the past few months -- with seeming success. But on Sunday (Oct. 17), around 20,000 people gathered in the Belarusian capital of Minsk for a protest that ended in violent clashes between demonstrators and police. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnytsky explores why so many people were willing to come onto the streets.
Prague, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The authorities in Belarus were surprised at the thousands of people who turned out for Sunday's anti-government protest. Fear of the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has meant that in recent months, the Belarus opposition has been able to muster relatively small numbers of people, usually just dozens or a few hundred, for demonstrations.
But on Sunday, according to estimations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), 20,000 demonstrators showed up for the rally, which its organizers called the Freedom March.
At first, things went peacefully. People listened to speeches by opposition figures, including the leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, Nikolai Statkevich, who burned a copy of a proposed union treaty between Russia and Belarus. Uniting Belarus with Russia is a passionate cause of Lukashenka's, while nationally-conscious Belarusians believe it would threaten their country's independence and very identity.
But soon, the demonstrations turned violent. After protesters tried to march to the center of Minsk, violent clashes broke out between them and riot police.
Police say 54 police were hurt, and opposition leaders say hundreds of demonstrators were injured. More than 90 people were arrested, including Statkevich. Yesterday he began a protest fast.
Over the past months, Lukashenka's government has worked to stamp out any kind of dissent, canceling and relocating demonstrations, and using state agencies to intimidate or close down opposition newspapers.
The fate of some opposition figures has produced a particularly sinister atmosphere in the country. Last month, Lukashenka told his security services to crack down more firmly on the regime's opponents. A few days later, one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders, Viktar Hanchar, disappeared. He is still missing.
The large turnout on Sunday was particularly surprising because opposition leaders have little access to mass media to spread their message. But the head of RFE/RL's Belarusian service, Alexander Lukashuk, says the opposition has a new, young group activists who have been drumming up support for their cause.
Lukashuk said: "There is a younger group of people, in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, who are bringing a new energy to the opposition movement. They saw the march on Sunday as a way to show what they could do and spent two months preparing for it and traveling around the country to gather support."
The rally focused on opposition to the treaty on union with Russia. Protesters also demanded the release of political prisoners and information about the whereabouts of disappeared opposition figures, such as Hanchar. The march also attracted people concerned about Belarus's increasing isolationism. Demonstrators carried the European Union flag alongside Belarus's flag. Placards urged "Belarus in Europe without Lukashenka."
Vintsuk Viachorka, one of the rally's organizers, is deputy chairman of the opposition party Belarusian Popular Front. He says the most important reason for the large turnout is that the demonstrators' anger at Lukashenka has grown larger than their fear of his regime.
"The fact that for over two years now so many people have not ventured out into the streets of our capital, and have now come out, proves that the barrier of political tolerance, the barrier of national dignity, the barrier of the community's patience has been breached. The people have come out, they have overcome the barrier of fear. And that is the most important result of today's event."
An OSCE official, Christopher Panico, watched the demonstration. He said that violence could have been avoided if the Belarus authorities had heeded the OSCE's appeals for demonstrators to be allowed to march to Yakub Kolas Square in the center of Minsk. Panico said that police started to beat the demonstrators, in his words "violently and viciously," after Statkevich tried to negotiate a path to the square. He said police chased fleeing demonstrators into side streets and buildings and beat those they caught.
Panico says he is concerned at reports that those arrested are being mistreated.
"We have been going to all police stations to get access to people, and we will attend trials. We are especially concerned about Nikolai Statkevich, who is the head of a social democratic party here and was arrested and is in prison. We have also had reports, which are as yet unconfirmed, though credible, that prisoners brought to certain police stations were forced to run a gauntlet of special forces police with batons and were beaten."
Viachorka and the other leaders of Sunday's demonstration have gone into hiding to avoid joining Statkevich in prison. The Belarusian opposition says more than 20 organizers of the demonstration are being sought by the authorities. One of the new breed of young opposition figures, Anatol Liabedzka, was arrested today.
The rally has served one purpose for the opposition, by turning the eyes of the world toward Belarus, at least temporarily. The European Union, the United States, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and many others have condemned Lukashenka's actions.