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Hundreds Protest In Minsk For Second Day Against Deeper 'Integration' With Russia


Protesters gathered in Minsk for a second day.
Protesters gathered in Minsk for a second day.

MINSK -- Hundreds of protesters have gathered in the Belarusian capital on December 8 for a second day to oppose "deepening integration" with Russia, despite warnings from police that they risked possible arrest.

The initial turnout appeared to be lower than the many hundred who showed up for a similarly unsanctioned march through Minsk a day earlier but still marked for a secret-police state where dissidents and protesters are ruthlessly persecuted.

The rallies were timed to coincide with a meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus in connection with the 20th anniversary of a union treaty meant to create a unified state.

Putin and Lukashenka emerged from their meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi on December 7 without announcing any decisions but with officials saying the leaders would convene again on the topic in St. Petersburg on December 20, according to Russian and Belarusian news agencies.

The Spring rights group claimed around 600 people began the synchronized march at its noon start on December 8, with police using a megaphone to order the gathering crowd to disperse.

There were minor skirmishes but none reportedly involved uniformed officials.

Later video from the rolling protest showed some in the compact column carrying red-striped white banners, the banned flag of the first independent Belarusian state, and other symbols of national pride in a march toward the Russian Embassy there.

Nearby traffic police were ensuring that roads were not blocked to traffic but otherwise appeared to be allowing the column to proceed.

Occasional calls of "Long live Belarus!" and "Independence!" rang out.

Activists agreed to hold a similar rally on December 20.

Minsk is heavily reliant on Moscow for cheap oil and billions of dollars in annual subsidies to keep its mostly state-run, Soviet-legacy economy afloat.

But Lukashenka, who has mocked the West's portrayal of him as "Europe's last dictator" and has not faced democratic elections since his rise in 1994, has also strived to maintain some distance between Minsk and Moscow.

Belarus is already a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), regional groupings that observers say Moscow uses to bolster its influence in the former Soviet Union and to counter the European Union and NATO.

Wariness of Moscow's intentions has risen among neighbors since Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and amid its continuing support for militants in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Lukashenka assured Belarusian lawmakers on December 5 that "no one will ever sign documents that could harm us" and said his country "never planned to join another state, including Russia, which is our fraternal nation."

Lukashenka told reporters in Sochi on December 7 that he was seeking "equal terms" for his country of around 9.5 million people.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his Belarusian counterpart, Syarhey Rumas, met last week but said that there was no breakthrough on contentious issues.

On December 8, the Belarusian ambassador to Moscow said that Minsk is seeking about $70 million in compensation following disruption in flows in an oil pipeline running through Belarus.

Ambassador Vladimir Semashko said the issue was discussed by the two countries’ presidents in Sochi, state news agency Belta reported.

Russia halted flows through its Friendship (Druzhba) pipeline in April after contaminated oil was discovered, temporarily halting supplies to Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

As a result, Minsk lost transit revenue.

With reporting by Belta and TASS
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