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Lukashenka, Opponents Mark Belarusian Independence Day; Several Detained


President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

MINSK -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has addressed a military parade marking the country's Independence Day, saying his government is pursuing peaceful and constructive ties with Russia, China, and the West.

Belarus, sandwiched between Russia and NATO, is strengthening its armed forces and is capable of protecting itself, the long-ruling authoritarian president said on July 3.

"Every Belarusian should be confident in our country's readiness to defend its sovereignty and independence.... Our armed forces have been upgraded to be able to stand against challenges and threats of the 21st century," Lukashenka said.

Lukashenka, whose country has close ties with Russia and has sometimes sought to play Moscow and the West off against each other, said that Belarus is peaceful and open for cooperation with all partners.

"We have been strengthening the union state with brotherly Russia, widening cooperation with China, and have been conducting a dialogue with the countries of the West on the principles of mutual trust," Lukashenka stressed.

Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EES) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), regional groupings observers say Russian President Vladimir Putin uses to seek to bolster Moscow's influence in the former Soviet Union and counter the EU and NATO.

Lukashenka, who has hosted talks aimed at ending the war between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, has recently expressed a desire to establish closer ties with the West as well.

But it is not clear how far he is willing to go to address U.S. and EU concerns about what opponents and activists say are years of oppressive policies and intolerance of dissent in the country of some 10 million, where he was first elected in 1994 and has maintained power through votes seen as not free or fair by international observers.

In a statement that made no direct mention of Lukashenka, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered "best wishes to the people of Belarus" and said the United States was "committed to supporting Belarus's sovereignty and independence."

"We continue to work with the government and people of Belarus to strengthen democratic institutions and respect for fundamental freedoms," Pompeo said.

Meanwhile, prominent Belarusian opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich was detained on his way to a rally meant to mock Lukashenka.

Statkevich and his supporters had called on Belarusians to demonstrate in downtown Minsk on July 3, which is officially celebrated as Independence Day and the day of liberation of the city from the Nazis by Soviet troops in 1944.

They called the rally the Act of Liberation and Solidarity and quoted what they claimed were words spoken publicly by Lukashenka in 1995 about Adolf HItler's Germany.

They quoted Lukashenka as saying, "The German order was formed [over] centuries, and at Adolf Hitler's time its formation had reached its highest point and [represented] what we understand as a presidential republic and the president’s role in it."

At least 20 activists and people who were giving interviews to RFE/RL were detained by men in civilian clothes on or on their way to Independence Avenue in Minsk.

Statkevich ran against Lukashenka in the 2010 presidential election.

He was arrested after attending a large demonstration protesting the election results, and spent five years in prison after being convicted of organizing riots at a trial criticized by human rights groups and Western governments.

With reporting by BelTA and BelaPAN
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