Black-clad riot police clubbed demonstrators as government opponents marched Saturday in defiance of a show of force by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that has drawn U.S. and European Union sanctions.
A week into protests set off by the disputed election that handed Lukashenko a third term, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told a crowd of thousands that momentum is growing to bring democracy to Belarus.
“We are starting work against dictatorship, and this work will sooner or later bear its fruit,” he said.
But Milinkevich also urged a monthlong recess in protests, apparently hoping to calm tensions and gain time to build opposition forces, which have fallen far short of the huge outpourings that peacefully overturned governments in Ukraine and Georgia.
The day of confrontation and wildly swinging emotions left two big questions for the former Soviet republic of 10 million people, characterized in the West as Europe’s last dictatorship: How much dissent are the authorities willing to allow and how much support does the opposition have?
Milinkevich spoke at an impromptu rally in a park after hundreds of police blocked protesters from gathering on the central square that had been the focus of anti-Lukashenko demonstrations until riot squads swept in before dawn Friday and arrested dozens of people.
Demonstrators held flowers, waved the red-and-white flag of the opposition and shouted “Milinkevich!” and “We are not afraid!”
Confrontation shatters calm
Police didn’t interfere with the 7,000 people in the park, raising hopes that security forces’ long history of violence against dissenters was softening.
But authorities showed their tolerance had limits after part of the rally’s participants marched off toward a jail holding some of those arrested during demonstrations against the March 19 presidential election that the protesters consider fraudulent.
Cheerily chanting “police be with the people” as they passed officers along the way, the crowd of about 3,000 suddenly grew somber when a three-deep phalanx of riot police with shields confronted them at a railroad underpass.
Banging truncheons on shields, the officers advanced on the marchers, causing some to scurry away. Police herded other protesters back along the street, beating some bloody and arresting about 20, as demonstrators shouted “Fascists!”
At least four percussion grenades were detonated, adding to the chaos. Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov later denied the explosions were set off by police, but did not say what caused them.
More than 100 people were arrested throughout the day, said Ales Byalyatsky of the human rights group Vasnya.
Scattered injuries, arrests
The International Helsinki Federation said one demonstrator was severely injured with a fractured skull. A Russian journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was beaten and detained earlier in the central city, his father told The Associated Press.
Among those arrested at the march was Alexander Kozulin, who like Milinkevich was a candidate against Lukashenko in the election. His spokeswoman, Nina Shedlovskaya, said he was beaten by police.
Kozulin apparently initiated the march to the jail, angering Milinkevich, who said that “Kozulin decided to spoil this holiday for the people.”
The two have appeared together at opposition meetings over the past week, but Milinkevich clearly commands the crowds’ affections.
The rally at the park was the biggest since the first protest on election night, when about 10,000 people turned out. But the large number was counterbalanced by hundreds of others who walked by in apathy, disgust or fear of taking part.
The crowd was mostly people younger than 30, with a large contingent of elderly. Middle-aged or middle-class people were few, underlining that the opposition so far isn’t drawing broad-based support in public.
Milinkevich nonetheless said he was elated by the turnout.
“The people have come out today, they have come out in the face of truncheons, in the face of arrests,” he said. “The more the authorities conduct repression, the closer they bring themselves to their end.”
Still, he acknowledged opposition 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.”
Milinkevich called for the next rally to take place April 26, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, which sent radiation over Belarus. Many people are unhappy over Lukashenko’s moves to repopulate evacuated areas of the contamination zone.
‘Tired of being afraid’
Saturday’s rally came on the anniversary of Belarus’ first independence declaration in 1918, which Milinkevich hoped would spur a big turnout of discontented Belarusians.
“I am tired of being afraid, and the fear is leaving me,” said Yelena Sokolovskaya, 44, an accountant who listened to his speech. She said the government’s claims that the economy is thriving are “a lie — Milinkevich speaks the truth.”
The confrontation at the march came a day after police stormed a tent camp in the central October Square where around-the-clock protests began after Lukashenko won a new five-year term by a landslide.
Among those arrested at the square was Poland’s former ambassador to Belarus, Mariusz Maszkiewicz, the Polish Embassy said Saturday. Neighboring Poland, which shed Moscow’s domination in 1989, has angered the pro-Russian Lukashenko with its support for the opposition.
Responding to the crackdown on government opponents, the European Union and the United States said Friday that they would impose sanctions on Lukashenko.
However, the sanctions 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 that the sanctions had “no prospects” and that Belarus reserved the right to take retaliatory measures.