The demonstrators wanted to hand a petition to the presidential administration demanding that authorities report on steps taken to solve lasting problems related to Chornobyl and that they stop producing food in areas contaminated by radiation. Riot police dispersed the rally within 15 minutes, arresting five Ukrainians, 14 Russians, and a dozen Belarusians.
The following day, Belarusian courts punished the arrested demonstrators with jail terms varying from five to 15 days. One of the Belarusian demonstrators was fined $2,000, a lump sum in a country that claims an average monthly pay of just $200.
In other words, it was business as usual for the repression machine of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Further developments, however, have broken the Belarusian authorities' routine in dealing with dissent in their country and led to what appears to be a serious diplomatic row between Minsk and Kyiv.
Ukraine Fights Back
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry on 27 April issued a statement saying that Belarusian authorities violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by denying the Ukrainian detainees access to proper legal defense.
The same day, activists from the Ukrainian National Alliance -- the youth organization of which the five detainees are members -- staged a picket in front of the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv, which has continued in subsequent days. The five jailed Ukrainians, as well as three of their Belarusian colleagues, went on a hunger strike on 28 April over their arrest.
The arrest of the 14 Russians -- primarily activists from the Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces youth organizations, as well as reporters from "Moskovskii komsomolets" and the Russian edition of "Newsweek" magazine -- was met with indignant cries in the Russian press. In a strongly worded report on 28 April, "Moskovskii komsomolets" said the antirally crackdown in Minsk was the work of "trained mongrels belonging to the fascist Lukashenka."
In an apparent effort to subdue the rising wave of negative press coverage in Moscow, Lukashenka ordered that the jailed Russian demonstrators be freed. On 30 April the Minsk City Court granted early release to the Russians, following an appeal by Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Blokhin, which was broadcast by the NTV channel the previous day. After the Russians were released, a spokesman from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the move "once again shows Belarus' readiness to further strengthen allied relations with Russia."
A 'Special Attitude?'
The five Ukrainians appealed to the Minsk City Court for early release as well, but the court rejected the appeal on 3 May, with no specific explanations. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk ascribed Minsk's reluctance to free the five Ukrainians to what he described as Belarus' "special attitude" toward Ukraine. Minsk denied it harbored any "special attitude" toward Kyiv, but at the same time warned Ukraine against "copying pseudo-democratic methods and forms of building interstate relations imposed by certain countries and international organizations."
What was it all about?
Many Ukrainian and Belarusian commentators maintain that Lukashenka -- who is going to seek a third presidential term in 2006, following a controversial constitutional referendum in October 2004 -- was deeply vexed by the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and is determined to do anything necessary to prevent a similar scenario in Belarus.
Referring to both the Orange Revolution and the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia during his annual address to the legislature on 19 April, Lukashenka said, "all those color revolutions were in fact no revolutions." He added: "It was plain banditry disguised as democracy. The limit of such revolutions was fully exhausted by the Belarusian people in the past century." He also said he would deal "harshly and adequately" with all those trying to "stir up the situation" in Belarus.
Lukashenka's Fear Of Orange
The fear of a Ukrainian-style revolution in Belarus is surely one of the main motives behind Lukashenka's tough approach to street demonstrations in Minsk. "You see, today they are working on what we will be doing in 2006. Ukraine is forming camps -- so to say, we will sent you revolutionaries from there," Lukashenka said in a somewhat paranoid stream-of-consciousness passage of his 19 April address. Whatever it meant, it is clear the Belarusian president believes Ukraine's Orange Revolution may prove infectious to some Belarusians.
But there may also be some other, less obvious reasons behind Lukashenka's dislike of Ukraine and Ukrainians under the rule of President Viktor Yushchenko. In mid-April, Ukraine backed a UN resolution condemning Belarus' human rights record. Earlier that month, in a visit to Washington, Yushchenko issued a joint statement with U.S. President George W. Bush pledging "to support the advance of freedom in countries such as Belarus and Cuba."
Lukashenka is not a man likely to take such things lightly. The Belarusian Interior Ministry on 5 April ordered that the five Ukrainian detainees be deported from Belarus after serving their jail terms and banned for five years from re-entering the country.
"The dialogue between Lukashenka and Belarus' western neighbors is developing very dynamically. Will breaking diplomatic ties be the next step?" the Belarusian independent weekly "Nasha Niva" commented sarcastically on Lukashenka's 19 April address, in which he accused Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine of working jointly to destabilize Belarus, and unspecified Western embassies of channeling "bagfuls" of money into Belarus to support the opposition.
Breaking diplomatic relations with Kyiv may not be an option for Minsk in the near future, but we need to remember that it is still more than a year until presidential election in Belarus. Lukashenka has amply proved in the past that he is capable of taking bewildering measures to counteract what he sees as threats to his rule.