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Belarus: Has Regime Adopted New Tactics Toward Opposition?

Protesters in Minsk on March 25 (AFP) March 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Belarusian opposition on March 25 staged the biggest rally in Minsk since the protests that followed the flawed presidential election in March 2006.

An estimated crowd of 10,000 people took part in the rally, in support of the country's independence, in front of Minsk's Academy of Sciences, after coming there in three separate columns. The columns had to sidestep police cordons or break through them with incidental scuffles.

Police, however, were relatively tolerant and did not resort to major arrests or beating, as was the case on some previous occasions.

What's more, the city authorities organized two competing events on the same day, also under slogans supporting Belarusian independence. Does this mean the opposition and the government have finally found common ground in their struggle for hearts and minds in Belarus?

Freedom Day

On March 25, popularly called Freedom Day, the Belarusian opposition every year marks the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, the first Belarusian state, which was proclaimed in Minsk on March 25, 1918 and crushed by the Bolsheviks some nine months later.

Thus, the date of March 25 clearly reminds Belarusians that their ancestors did not necessarily link the fate of their state to that of Russia, as the official historiography in present-day Belarus states.

Throughout the rule of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Freedom Day has been an anathema to the government, whose declared goal was to seek rapprochement with Moscow rather than detachment from it. Therefore, the Belarusian authorities have, in the past, tried to prevent the opposition from taking people to the streets on March 25.

"These people do not want any longer to look from an ideological point of view like populists or socialists but want to build normal capitalism."

This year, however, apart from its usual approach of making preventive arrests and beefing up the police presence in Minsk, the government resorted to a different tactic.

The city authorities organized an open-air concert in the capital on March 25 at noon and another one at a city airport in the evening. The concerts were held under the widely advertised motto "For An Independent Belarus."

It seems that the primary goal of these concerts was to divert the attention of Minsk residents from the opposition-organized rally but, as some opposition activists were quick to indicate, in this way the government obliquely celebrated Freedom Day on its own.

City-Wide Holiday

Viktar Ivashkevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front and an organizer of the opposition rally, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that, thanks to the authorities, Freedom Day had for the first time become an all-city holiday.

"It turned out that the action extended to the entire city. Every man on [Freedom] Day was given the chance to celebrate in his own way," Ivashkevich said. "Those who wanted to scuffle with police, did so. Those who wanted a peaceful march, got it. Those who wanted a rally, got it. Those who wanted to celebrate the day jointly with the authorities, got it. It was a full-blown holiday."

Barroso: Ready for partnership with Belarus

But Minsk-based philosopher Ihar Babkou suggests that there may have also been a deliberate intention on the part of the authorities to take advantage of the ideological stock of the opposition and give official backing to the idea of independent Belarusian statehood.

According to Babkou, after appropriating national properties those in power in Belarus may now want to appropriate some pro-independence sentiments.

"It seems to me that [the authorities] have begun to softly include, to softly absorb into their own armory, all things that formerly were characteristic of the opposition. With what can it be connected? It can be connected with the fact that properties have finally been divided, and that these people do not want any longer to look from an ideological point of view like populists or socialists but want to build normal capitalism on the periphery [of the former Soviet Union]," Babkou said.

More Carrots, Less Sticks

Moreover, Babkou argued that the West, preoccupied with more important global issues than the "last dictatorship in Europe," may soften its stance with regard to President Lukashenka and try to "softly absorb" Belarus into its fold by offering carrots rather than sticks to the regime.

"I think that Belarus today does not belong to the 10 top bugbears of the world. In this sense, I think that the old Europe, at least the old Europe, will continue its strategy of a soft absorption, that is, as Lukashenka is now trying to softly absorb and neutralize the opposition, the old Europe will try to do the same with the Belarusian regime," Babkou said.

In view of the colder relations between Minsk and Moscow following a row over gas and oil prices in January, such a European approach toward the Belarusian regime cannot be ruled out.

As Belarusians in Minsk fought their way through police cordons to manifest their support for independence of their country, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the united Europe in Berlin that the EU is ready to form "a full partnership" with Belarus and boost financial aid to the country if it adopts democratic reforms.

(Hanna Sous and Yury Drakakhrust from RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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