Recent events in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan clearly affected the traditional “Independence Day” demonstration in Minsk on Friday, March 25, when the Belarusian authorities reacted with a fearsome display of force and intimidation along the central street of the capital city.
The march, dubbed the “Day of Freedom,” was organized by former parliamentary deputy (Supreme Soviet of the 13th session) and former political prisoner Andrei Klimau. His initial plan was to hold a demonstration that would attract up to 500,000 people in the main October Square in Minsk, which holds the buildings of the parliament and Minsk city council. The authorities have prohibited public demonstrations around government buildings, such as this square and the area around the president’s residence.
Initially, however, only several hundred people arrived in the square, which was immediately surrounded by OMON troops in full riot gear. The troops ordered the demonstrators to disperse with the warning: “Physical force will be applied if participants do not obey these orders!” Those with flags (mainly the white-red-white “national” flag that was removed as the national flag following a referendum in April 1995 and is now banned, but also EU flags) and leaflets urging an end to the Lukashenka regime were quickly removed and the demonstrators were forced out of the square and onto the main thoroughfare of Skaryna Avenue (Narodnaya Volya, March 26, Information from Uladzimir Hlad, Belapan, March 26).
Here the demonstration reportedly increased in size to around 2,000 people, and the situation became violent at times. About ten protestors were initially arrested, later the number rose to over 20. Along Skaryna Avenue, troops lined both sides of the road from October Square to the GUM department store, forcing the protesters into narrow swathes that blocked the entrances to several stores, including the central McDonald’s. The crowd shouted, “Long live Belarus!” “Freedom!” and “Down with Lukashenka!” (Charter 97, March 25).
On Lenin Street, troops attacked some individuals, beating them with rubber truncheons, apparently after several demonstrators started to throw snowballs at them. Incensed by this response, the troops charged the crowd, hitting people with rubber batons. In nearby Svoboda Park, Klimau finally delivered a brief speech, demanding an end to the detention of political prisoners, and he reminded the assembled of those who had disappeared at the hands of the authorities, particularly the former deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Viktar Hanchar, the former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenka, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski. The troops dispersed this meeting after some 10 minutes (Charter 97, March 25). The last of the demonstrators reassembled near the Sports Palace, mingling with a crowd that was to attend a wrestling tournament. Altogether, the March 25 protests lasted about two hours.
The main opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, carried two appeals to the population on the following day. One was from Ivonka Survilla, head of the Rada of the “government-in-exile,” who resides in Quebec, Canada. She called for the creation of a free and democratic Belarus. The other appeal, from the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada, outlined the historical ideals of the Belarusian Social Democrats and demanded that March 25 become a state holiday (Narodnaya Volya, March 26).
The demonstration needs to be put into perspective. On the one hand, given the dramatic events of the previous day in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the turnout in Minsk was not impressive. Belarus is not yet in a position to mount a credible threat to the Lukashenka administration. On the other hand, the March 25 protest was the largest in Belarus for some time, and the reaction of the authorities indicates the government’s uncertainty. The official reason given by the authorities was that a rumored march by neo-Nazis was likely to cause a confrontation on the streets of the capital (NTV, March 25) but this threat, if it ever existed, never materialized.
The government has already begun legal actions against some of the ringleaders of the opposition citing earlier “transgressions.” The ex-chairman of the Young Front, Pavel Seviarinets, and former Social Democratic leader Mikola Statkevich have been charged under Article 342 of the Criminal Code for organizing meetings protesting the results of the October 17, 2004, referendum, which reportedly validated Alexander Lukashenka’s decision to run for a third term in office next year (Narodnaya Volya, March 25). And just prior to the March 25 event, a Minsk regional court issued criminal charges against Klimau for, inter alia, publicly insulting the president in his books Uprising, Obvious Truths, and I Made My Choice (Prima News, March 22).
Now the demonstrators can begin to prepare for the annual Chernobyl March on April 26, at which the turnout is likely to be higher. Traditionally, the youth groups Zubr (Bison) and Young Front play a large role in that demonstration. They may draw attention from the May 9 celebration of the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, when Lukashenka will attend the parade in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long regarded Lukashenka as a troublesome necessity, is clearly concerned by the sudden regime changes in the Near Abroad. In Minsk, however, no changes are imminent, as popular protests, while growing, are not yet a significant threat to the government.