Streets of Minsk calm after 'storm'

Belarusian police monitor the square that was the center of unprecedented protests.

belarus 88 (photo credit: )
belarus 88
(photo credit: )
There was relative quiet in Minsk on Monday, a day after police forcefully dispersed rioting opposition supporters. Belarusian police monitored the square that was the center of the unprecedented protests, one week after controversial presidential elections that gave another term in power to the country's authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko. Riot police wielding truncheons clashed Saturday with protesters who held a defiant rally against the disputed election results. Many protesters were detained, including one of the opposition leaders, Alexander Kozulin. The clash occurred after a gauntlet of riot police blocked the path of protesters marching to a jail where demonstrators arrested in previous protests were being held. Police beat their shields with truncheons and advanced on the crowd. Four explosions ripped through the air, apparently percussion grenades set off by police, and protesters began to disperse, yelling: "Fascists!" But police detained at least a score of people, loading them into trucks. At least two people lay injured on the ground, and one was seen being taken away by ambulance. Earlier, rows of black-clad police blocked the central Oktyabrskaya Square where opposition leaders had called for a midday rally. Officers pushed the crowd of about 3,000 back in a bid to end a week of unprecedented protests in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic. Demonstrators shouted "Shame!" and "Long live Belarus!" On the other side of the sprawling square, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich led another crowd of several thousand to a nearby park, where he announced "the creation of a movement for the liberation of Belarus." "The authorities can only confront the striving of the people for change with persecution and violence," Milinkevich told the crowd, which grew to as many as 7,000 people. Demonstrators held flowers, waved the red-and-white historic flag of the opposition and shouted "Mi-lin-ke-vich!" and "We are not afraid!" "The people have come out today, they have come out in the face of truncheons, in the face of arrests," Milinkevich said. "The more the authorities conduct repression, the closer they bring themselves to their end." Milinkevich praised Belarusians who have protested since the March 19 election, but acknowledged that their numbers are not enough to defeat Lukashenko's government. "We can be proud of what we have already done: Fear is vanquished," he said. "But today there are not 200,000 or 500,000 of us coming out into the square. If there were, they (the authorities) would run away from the country." "We are starting work against dictatorship, and this work will sooner or later bear its fruit," he said. The tense scenes came a day after police stormed a tent camp in Oktyabrskaya Square that had been the focus of round-the-clock protests over the election in which Lukashenko won a new five year-term by a landslide in a vote the opposition denounced as a farce and the West criticized as undemocratic. Milinkevich, who officially received about 6 percent of the vote and wants a new election without the participation of Lukashenko, had been calling all week for a major demonstration Saturday marking the anniversary of Belarus' first independence declaration in 1918. "We're not planning any violence, any taking of the Bastille. We want a peaceful demonstration," he said before the rally, standing with his wife and about 100 relatives of detained activists. Police took no action against the park rally, and did not prevent people from joining it. "I am tired of being afraid, and the fear is leaving me," said Yelena Sokolovskaya, 44, an accountant at the park rally. She said the government's claims that the economy is thriving are "a lie - Milinkevich speaks the truth." Protesters pelted a three-man crew from Belarusian state television, which has shown the protests in an extremely negative light, with snowballs and shouted "Shame on Belarusian television!" The crowd began to disperse peacefully after opposition figures called for an end to the rally and said the next major demonstration would be held April 26. Heeding a call from Kozulin, many demonstrators headed toward the jail where some of the hundreds of protesters arrested Friday were being held, and the clash ensued. The country's top police official, Vladimir Naumov, said one protester suffered a light head injury and eight police officers were hurt. He claimed the police had not set off the explosions, accused protesters of throwing rocks and bottles and refused to say how many people were detained. He said Kozulin had called for the government's overthrow and Lukashenko's death. "The situation is calm and I think it will remain that way," Naumov said. Milinkevich called the march to the jail "a provocation" and sharply criticized Kozulin, saying there had been an agreement that demonstrators would disperse after the rally. "Kozulin decided to spoil this holiday for the people," he told The Associated Press. The two appeared together at a campaign rally shortly before the election, but they had obvious disagreements after the election, in which official results gave Kozulin 2.2 percent of the vote. Last Sunday's election had set off a week of persistent protests, beginning with an election-night demonstration that drew some 10,000 people - an enormous turnout in a country where police usually suppress unauthorized gatherings swiftly and brutally. Protesters raised the stakes Monday, setting up tents where hundreds stayed for days. Police had arrested hundreds of people in connection with protests, but their failure to break up the camp raised opposition hopes of establishing a foothold. Those hopes ended when riot police stormed in early Friday, wrestling about 50 protesters into trucks and taking away hundreds of others who did not resist. Several people who were detained said they had been beaten. The European Union and the United States said Friday that they would impose sanctions on Lukashenko, who they say has turned Belarus into Europe's last dictatorship. Both called for an immediate end to the crackdown on the opposition. However, the measures seemed unlikely to influence Lukashenko, who despises the West and has allied his country with Russia. In a statement late Friday, the Foreign Ministry said the sanctions had "no prospects," and that Belarus reserves the right to take retaliatory measures.