The 89th anniversary of the formation of the Belarusian National Republic was commemorated in Minsk with the largest public anti-government demonstration since last year’s Chernobyl march. Although the authorities reacted harshly and at times resorted to violence and arrests, the official response was surprisingly tentative. The regime attempted to offset the demonstration by holding alternative functions to commemorate an independent Belarus, including a concert at the National Library and the ballet “Swan Lake” at the Palace of the Republic on October Square, for which the doors opened at 11.30 am. By contrast the organizers of the demonstration, led by the leader of the United Democratic Forces, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, were understandably jubilant and buoyed particularly by the size of the gathering and support from leaders of the EU, as well as by the fact that the Lukashenka regime provided official recognition of the March 25 commemoration for the first time.
Although the organizers, who included the leader of the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front Vintsuk Vyachorka, had declared that the action would be peaceful and non-confrontational, the Minsk City Council refused permission for the “Day of Will” to be celebrated in October Square. Instead, officials allowed a march from the Academy of Sciences (further to the east) to Bangalor Square. Milinkevich, Vyachorka, Viktar Ivashkevich, Igar Shynkaryk, and Alyaksei Lyaukovich, were invited to the council and asked to sign documents in which it was stated that any violations of civic order would be regarded as a criminal offense. Shynkaryk, a member of the United Civic Party, maintained that he and his colleagues had refused to sign these documents because of the authorities’ confrontational attitude.
The initial signs were of a possible major confrontation in the Belarusian capital. The authorities prepared with their familiar precision. On the morning of the 25th, Belarusian Internet users discovered that several websites had been shut down, including those of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Radio Liberty. Passengers on the electric train from Orsha to Minsk reported the arrests of several young people, while workers of the State Auto Inspection stopped known opposition members driving into Minsk at the entrance to the city. The sensitive October Square area, where opposition supporters established a tent city following last year’s presidential elections, was placed under the jurisdiction of the notorious special forces commander Dzmitry Paulichenka while Yury Padabed, commander of riot police, gathered troops close to the state department store.
According to one account, the center of Minsk resembled a besieged fortress. The center of the city was sealed off, with the Kupalauskaya and Kastrychnitskaya metro stations closed, and the Universalny store and McDonald’s shut down “for sanitary reasons.” However, no serious clashes took place. The militia prevented the marchers from entering the center of the city and dispersed them into smaller groups. The size of the gathering has been estimated at between 5,000 and 15,000, according to various reports. Most sources suggest that at least 10,000 people took part, including a high proportion of youth.
Although the main body reached the Academy of Sciences at 1.30 pm and prepared for a sanctioned meeting, a another group was forced to assemble near the Sports Palace and forced off Avenue of the Victors near to the Moscow Cinema. A skirmish with militia took place, but many demonstrators later found their way to the Academy of Sciences. There the proceedings were opened by Vyachorka, who applauded the 50th anniversary of the European Union and read greetings from Ivonka Survilla, chair of the Belarusian Rada in exile. Anatol Lyabedzka appealed for the release of political prisoners, and several foreign politicians addressed the audience, including the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Janus Onyszkiewicz, members of the Russian Right Forces, and the Azerbaijani Musavat.
Milinkevich was the final speaker. He thanked European politicians — singling out German Chancellor Angela Merkel — for their support and declared that the meeting signified the inevitability of change in Belarus and that “We will be in Europe!” About 300 people made their way to the National Library, but the concert there ended abruptly. About 70 arrests were made prior to and during the protest march and nine people have been imprisoned to date. Milinkevich needed medical treatment after a clash with militia forces, and evidently both he and Vyachorka may face charges under Criminal Code Article 342, for organization of actions that disturb the public peace, which carries a maximum sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment.
March 25 traditionally marks the beginning of a series of opposition protests that culminate on April 26, the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The events of last Sunday appear to have reinvigorated the opposition. Lukashenka has not been seen in public for over two weeks (which has led to rumors of illness), and the vicious brutality of last year failed to materialize, ostensibly because deprived of his traditionally firm support from Russia, the Belarusian president cannot afford to alienate the EU further. On the other hand, the regime has taken no steps to initiate a new dialogue in response to EU appeals, suggesting that further intense external and internal pressure will be required to bring about any significant changes to the status quo.
(Narodnaya volya, March 23; BBC News, March 25; Belorusskie novosti, March 27; Belorusy i Rynok, March 26-April 2; Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, March 26; Charter 97, March 26)