Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 57

At least 25,000 citizens, predominantly young, demonstrated on March 15 in Minsk to mark Constitution Day–the anniversary of the 1994 constitution, rewritten two years later unilaterally by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka when he established personal rule. The Popular Front, Social-Democrat, United Civic Action and other opposition parties, as well as human rights and free trade union groups had called the demonstration and provided the speakers at the concluding rally, which was held under the banned national colors. The slogans and the speakers called for independent statehood and were against the Russia-Belarus Union, were for ending international isolation imposed by Lukashenka and for “joining civilized Europe”–one large placard read: “to Europe without Lukashenka”–as well as the release of political detainees, an official accounting of the fate of opposition leaders who “disappeared,” and the resumption of the OSCE’s mediating mission in Belarus with a view to preparing free and fair elections. The resolution approved at the rally also warned against absorption into a corruption-ridden and violent Russia, where Belarusans could be conscripted to serve in Chechnya and other “trouble spots” (Belapan, AP, Reuters, Radio Polonia, March 15-16). To Russia’s official news agency, this meant that “the rally had a pronounced anti-Russian character” (Itar-Tass, March 16).

In a bid to limit attendance at the rally, state television had warned the public in advance that the opposition plans to provoke clashes and turn Belarus into another Yugoslavia or Chechnya. It also smeared the opposition as pro-fascist or, alternately, as consisting mostly of traders, currency speculators and members of well-to-do social groups. That campaign suggests that the authorities have decided to fan social envy not just against entrepreneurship as heretofore, but also against the political opposition in a bid to limit its social base.

Massive riot police cordons were deployed, but ultimately did not intervene against the demonstration. Western diplomats had forewarned the government against using force and were out watching the event. On the eve of the rally, a U.S. State Department statement in Washington–made public in Minsk–and a message delivered to Lukashenka by the Department’s senior official Ross Wilson “strongly urged” the government to allow the peaceful event to proceed freely. Both the statement and the special envoy stressed, moreover, that Russia-Belarus “integration” can not be regarded as voluntary, because Belarus lacks democratic institutions and its citizens are denied the freedom to express their view through the political process. The U.S. White House in an unprecedently strong statement referred to “Belarus’ antidemocratic, self-isolating regime” (M2 Communications, Belapan, March 14-15).

Under twin pressures at home and abroad, Lukashenka flared up in front of the country. In successive, emotional statements, broadcast on the eve of and after the opposition rally, the president accused the United States of spending multimillion dollar sums to finance the opposition, described the latter as “bandits, swindlers and merchants,” and waved his finger at opposition leaders: “[Former prime minister and presidential aspirant Mikhail] Chyhir already has one foot in jail, but he goes to the rally. Why did you go? So that they’ll say afterward that he was jailed for political activity? Same with [Social-Democrat leader Mikalay] Statkevich. What brought you there? You better sit quietly at home and pray to God to stay out of jail” (Belarusan Television, Minsk Radio, March 14, 16-17).

On March 17, the court of the Lenin borough in Minsk sentenced a prominent opposition figure, Andrei Klimau, to six years in prison for having “overcharged” the government on a construction contract several years ago. Six codefendants were sentenced to shorter terms. Klimau, a construction entrepreneur, is one of several substantial local businessmen closely associated with the opposition. As a deputy to the forcibly dissolved, but internationally recognized Belarusan parliament, he should enjoy legal immunity. During that parliament’s final days, Klimau had spearheaded a move to impeach Lukashenka for usurpation of power. All but the authorities regard Klimau’s trial and conviction as politically motivated. He joins his fellow parliamentary deputy Uladzimir Kudzinau on the list of prisoners of conscience in Belarus (Belapan, March 17-18; see the Monitor, February 7, 14, 18, 29).