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Protests and Repression in Belarus

Prague, April 29 (RFE/RL) - Law courts are busy today in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, handing out punitive sentences against opposition activists and ordinary people who took part in an anti-government demonstration three days ago.

Some two hundred people were reported to have been detained April 26, when the police moved in force to disperse an unauthorized public march through the streets of the capital. Dozens were injured in ensuing violent clashes.

The march was called by the Popular Front, a group opposed to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy. It is estimated that about 50,000 people heeded the call.

The march quickly turned into a protest against Lukashenka, who has been seen by a seemingly increasing number of people as authoritarian. Within the last month alone, there have been three separate mass protests in Minsk against his policies. Each has attracted large numbers of people, with the demonstration three days ago being the largest so far.

The earlier protests were primarily directed against Lukashenka's efforts to re-integrate Belarus into Russia. Nationalist sentiments were also expressed in the latest march, with numerous groups reportedly carrying Belarus' former national flags that had been replaced last year with a Soviet-era banner in a referendum engineered by Lukashenka.

But the crowd was also protesting Lukashenka's arbitrary style of government. Ever since winning the presidential election in 1993, Lukashenka has repeatedly disregarded the parliament and issued his own decrees, has recurrently ignored rulings of the country's constitutional court that declared these decrees invalid, has suspended protesting labor unions and has effectively muzzled the media.

Following the crackdown on the protest, the Popular Front said in a statement April 27 that the move "proved the final establishment of dictatorship and totalitarian regime in Belarus." The group condemned the use of force by the police, and called for punishment of "the real initiators of arbitrary rule in the country," and appealed for the release of the detainees.

Yesterday, two detained opposition activists, Yuri Khadyka and Vintsuk Viachorka, declared a hunger strike to protest their arrest.

Two days ago, Lukashenka banned all public rallies through May 1. The Popular Front has called for a protest demonstration against the president on that day. None of the parties is likely to back down.

Indeed, the conflict between the president and the nationalist - but also anti-authoritarian opposition movement - is already changing the character of Belarusian politics.

While the earlier political crises - and there have been many of those - largely focused on recurrent collisions between the president and the parliament over the extent of authority within the system of government, the current conflict pits Lukashenka against the public itself.

To a large extent, the conflict has been of Lukashenka's own making. The manner in which he has been pushing his pro-Russian policy, without so much as even attempting to consult with the parliament and public groups, has mobilized public opposition to that policy. His disregard for the existing institutions, the parliament and the judiciary, only facilitated the shift of political action away from the institutional mainstream and into the streets.

For the moment, the opposition movements and activities concentrate in big cities, primarily in Minsk, while the vast rural countryside remains placid, immovable and seemingly supportive of the president's actions.

But the number of protesters seems to grow, and their voices appear to get louder. Protests may spread, particularly if the disastrous economic situation does not improve any time soon.

This may complicate Lukashenka's moves in the future. It is likely to pave the way for further confrontation. And it is certain to undermine Belarus's institutional and political stability, or what is left of it.