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Lukashenko lays down his law

Filed under: Belarus ~ Europe

On March 25, Belorussian pro-democracy parties staged a rally commemorating the independence of the first Belorussian state, as well as the week-long rallies that took place in October Square following elections that were deemed neither free nor fair. How the government reacted would determine how serious it was about overtures it had been making about better relations with the European Union. With several MEPs on hand, there'd be plenty of witnesses to whatever happened. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso even said that he was prepared for a "full partnership" with Belarus if it consented to democratic reforms.

But for all intents and purposes, it does not appear as if that will be the case.

The regime was up to its old, dirty tricks again. Dozens of activists were arrested in the days prior to the rally, and at least 100 more during it. The government made sure that the state universities held exams on that day -- a Sunday! -- so that students would not be able to attend. Furthermore, the area and many streets where the demonstration was to take place, in October Square, was completely blocked off by riot police. And these are not the donut dunkin' type. Judging from when I was in Minsk back in August, these guys are all huge, powerful, and ready to lay it down. Not only are these people you wouldn't pick a fight with, but if you did, you'd almost certainly lose.

Charter 97 has the best news. You just have to scroll. There's tons of it, as well as pictures. Radio Free Europe, though, has a nice and concise article about the demonstrations:
MINSK, March 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian police clashed with protesters in Minsk today after about 10,000 people turned out for an opposition rally to call for the ousting of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

There are no reports of injuries in the clashes, which came as the opposition marked the anniversary of the short-lived 1918 Belarus republic crushed by Bolshevik troops.

Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich told supporters at the rally: "We are the majority. We will win. The authorities will fall under the pressure of their lies."
Protests against that election a year ago lasted four days before a wave of arrests of opposition activists stopped the rallies. Western countries imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and other high-level Belarus officials in response.

Protesters in today's demonstration shouted "Long Live Belarus!" as they made their way toward the city center. Opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich led the demonstrators in chants of "We want freedom! and "Belarus will join the European Union!" Many carried blue EU or the white-red-white Belarusian flags.

Anti-Lukashenka protesters in Minsk todayPolice, who at times beat back individuals in the crowd, redirected the march toward the Academy of Sciences, where Milinkevich addressed the crowd. Milinkevich, who along with his wife was among those police hit with their truncheons, was joined by members of the European Parliament.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel marked the 50-year anniversary of the creation of the European Union with words for the people of Belarus. Merkel spoke of her feelings as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 saying it was a "defining moment for me: I realized that nothing ever has to stay the way it is."
Not looking good for a man isolated on both sides. In fact, I'm going to make a wild guess that judging by today's events Belarus is going to have a wait a long time before becoming part of the free world. Take this, for instance, according to Charter 97:
A vice president of the European Parliament Janusz Onyszkiewicz has addressed the meeting. He has expressed concern over the situation in Belarus. He has stated that by personal experience he has learnt today that Belarus is not a free country, and is ruled by a dictator. Mr. Onyszkiewicz has congratulated the Belarusians on Freedom Day and wished them freedom. “Europe cannot be completely free without Belarus. Today’s Belarus is an anomaly in the center of Europe”
It didn't go nearly as horribly as last year, but Mr. Onyszkiewcz has the right idea. It wouldn't be right to say that Lukashenko controls all of Belarus, but he has a tight grip over his center of power, being all the institutions in Minsk (ironically, where most of the opposition hails!). Things do not appear to be getting better.

A picture is worth a thousand words, though, and seeing the pictures from this rally brought back a lot of memories. When I was in Belarus last August, I went through both October Square and the national library where this demonstration took place. The seen is so much different. October Square is a dull, wide open area that honestly I would only notice normally because of its vast void. The national library, on the other hand, is surrounded by beautiful parks and the building itself is ultra-modern both on the inside and out. Yet when the riot police position themselves in huge, threatening columns, both take on a completely new and ugly life of their own.

Here's the national library:

And here's October Square:

And lastly, Independence Avenue:

Believe it or not, Lukashenko, not every soul on Belarus loves you.

And you would know that if you weren't so busy falsifying elections, sending out hundreds of riot police, and threatening the livelihoods of thousands of people.

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