Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 62

Troops of the OMON (special-purpose internal units) brutally dispersed the Belarusan opposition’s Freedom Day mass rally in downtown Minsk on March 25. An unprecedented concentration of up to 2,000 police, backed by armored personnel carriers, confronted some 7,000 demonstrators, hundreds of whom were beaten and arrested. In the melee, the police also grabbed several observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Polish parliamentary delegates and a score of international media correspondents–including Russian television crews, whose cameras the police smashed.

A 10,000-strong crowd gathered later in the day at an outlying Minsk location to hold the scheduled rally in defense of Belarusan independent statehood. The rally’s resolution called on the international community “to unambiguously announce its nonrecognition of any interstate union concluded on behalf of Belarus by [president Alyaksandr] Lukashenka”–a reference to the Russia-Belarus Union. Lukashenka’s legal term of office expired in July 1999. The country also lacks an elected parliament, the existing legislature having been formed by presidential appointment.

Lukashenka, who flew on an official visit to the United Arab Emirates hours before the police action, had instructed the Internal Affairs Ministry and KGB (still so named) to show firmness and prevent the demonstration from being held in downtown Minsk. Internal Affairs Minister Yurii Sivakau went on television afterward to announce that the president’s instructions had been carried out. Lukashenka telephoned from the UAE to express approval of the crackdown.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued announcements vaguely implying that their intercession had secured the release of Russian television crews by the Minsk authorities. The Belarusan presidential administration claimed that it had released the Russian reporters and other foreign citizens in the absence of any intercession from Moscow. Coinciding as they did with Russia’s presidential balloting, the Minsk events highlighted Putin’s share of responsibility for propping up Lukashenka (Belapan, AP, Reuters, Itar-Tass, Russia’s Public TV, March 25-26).

The preceding week, a 25,000-strong demonstration of the opposition in central Minsk proceeded freely after Western missions had warned the Belarusan government against using force. The success of that demonstration visibly alarmed Lukashenka (see the Monitor, March 21). It apparently prompted him and his police generals to show at the next opportunity that they are able to control the city center and willing to use disproportionate force to that end. The authorities are now bracing for the opposition’s April 26 Chornobyl Road mass demonstration.

Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the Belarusan National Republic (BNR), which emerged–along with Ukraine and the three Baltic states–following the defeat of the Russian Empire by Germany in World War I and the political ascent of the local, nationally minded intelligentsia. An elected Supreme Council (Rada) and a government named by it prevailed against the Bolsheviks, took power in Minsk in February 1918, and proclaimed the BNR on March 25 that year. The BNR established diplomatic contacts with a number of European countries before falling to Soviet Russia’s forces in December 1918 and ultimately in 1920 (see Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1997).

Soviet rule imposed a veil of secrecy on those events and forbade any public mention of the BNR except to denigrate it. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the March 25 anniversaries were observed freely as Belarusan Freedom Day. Lukashenka, however, has reimposed the official taboo on the BNR. The national-democratic opposition considers the BNR a precursor of its own efforts to secure Belarusan independence (see the Monitor, March 30, 1999).