Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 219

More than 2,000 Minsk residents braved the severe cold and the police yesterday in staging a protest march against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s autocracy. The demonstrators marked the second anniversary of the “referendum” through which Lukashenka arrogated dictatorial powers. Speakers at the rally recalled that the Kremlin supported Lukashenka’s suppression of the legitimate parliament, and that Russia became the only country to officially recognize the referendum as valid. Paying homage to the memory of the recently slain Russian politician Galina Starovoitova, rally speakers pointed out that she, in contrast to the Russian government, supported the Belarusan democrats.

On the same anniversary day, Lukashenka threatened to prosecute official labor union leaders for embezzlement if they go ahead with plans to call workers’ protests against deteriorating living conditions. Should the union leaders “play with fire,” the president warned, he would make public the findings of a recent audit which presumably uncovered “sheer robbery” and “fraud after fraud” at the Trade Union Bank. The president seemed to imply that he would not take that step if the official labor leaders desist from calling protests (NTV, Russian agencies, November 24).

Lukashenka has more than once indicated that he worries less about the political opposition than about possible social unrest among industrial workers. The official trade unions of Belarus have thus far been quiescent and seem to have the workforce well in hand. However, the deepening economic crisis is placing that quiescence under growing strain. Last week in Minsk, an official trade union rally turned vociferously antipresidential. A merger of political protests with workers’ social grievances could threaten Lukashenka’s rule. He will probably respond by demanding more economic concessions from Russia in return for his political loyalty.