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Dozens Assemble In Minsk Over Possible Integration With Russia

MINSK -- Dozens of people have rallied in Minsk’s Freedom Square against their country’s possible integration with Russia.

Prominent opposition politician and former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich organized the protest on October 6 ostensibly as part of a drive to collect signatures and get on the ballot for next month’s parliamentary elections.

Referring to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the opposition leader asked what right “does this man have to sell our country, to sell our state?”

The rally, and several more before that around the country over the previous weeks, took place under the slogan of “action for independence.”

A series of Russian media reports, first in the Kommersant newspaper on September 16, on a future “integration plan” that Belarus and Russia plan to sign in December, have raised concerns of a closer embrace with Moscow.

Media accounts in Russia have said that Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka are expected to endorse a series of bilateral commitments on December 8 -- the 20th anniversary of the signing of their Union Treaty.

The original treaty, negotiated by the countries’ economy ministers, envisioned establishing a single monetary, banking, and customs system.

However, a draft of the new commitments, according to media reports, foresees measures of establishing a single tax code, a single regulator for energy markets, and merging some customs policies.

Lukashenka has been slow to further integrate with Russia and he has grown weary of a resurgent Moscow ever since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, eventually taking it over while backing a separatist war in that country’s two easternmost regions that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Minsk is reliant on Russia for cheap oil and on roughly $5 billion worth of yearly subsidies for its outmoded Soviet-era economy that is mostly state-run, barring its flourishing information-technology industry.

In 2017, Lukashenka implemented a visa-free regime with 80 countries that frustrated Moscow’s plans to set up a mutual visa recognition system with Belarus.

The Belarusian president also in late September announced he will sign a visa simplification agreement with the EU.

The authoritarian ruler has released political prisoners and has been reluctant to host a Russian air base after NATO expanded its presence in Eastern Europe to deter Moscow.

Although the November 17 parliamentary elections are unrelated to the anniversary of the December Union State agreement, Statkevich told the small crowd in Minsk that there “are millions” like them in the country, and that they are the “90-95 percent against a tiny handful of people who grasp us around the neck.”

Registration to run for a parliamentary seat begins after October 17.

Opposition parties currently occupy two of the 110 seats in the Belarusian House of Representatives and previous calls by the opposition to boycott elections are no longer popular.

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