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June 21, 2011

Belarus Police Break Up Peaceful Protest

by James Brooke

Six months after protests against fraudulent elections led to a brutal crackdown against Belarus' political opposition, Belarusians are coming out to protest again - this time against the nation’s economic collapse.  

This is a protest Belarus-style.  The loudest voices are those of the police, telling people to disperse.

Protesters do not chant slogans.  They do not carry signs.  They do not wear political T-shirts or buttons.  They just walk on the sidewalks, mingle and chat on a summer evening.

But that apparently was too much for the government of Belarus - on edge after a 50-percent devaluation of the Belarusian ruble in recent weeks.

To break up what is now a weekly protest, police in Minsk detained scores of people Wednesday night, including Oleg Gruzdilovich, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The arrests came after President Alexander Lukashenko, the long-running dictator of Belarus, threatened to fire his interior minister if another protest took place against his government.  In a rambling, five-hour press conference, the president denounced social networks and threatened to shut down the Internet.

Vyesna, a human rights group, said that hundreds of Facebook and Twitter users were interrogated in recent days by agents of the secret police, still called the KGB in Belarus.

Despite the crackdown, many of the thousands of young people mingling in downtown Minsk on Wednesday said they were alerted by social networks and a Youtube protest film that has gone viral.

Dmitry, a 22-year-old history student, said that invitations to the protest were all over the Internet this week.

“We want a change,” he said. “We want to live in a free country.”

Like many protesters, Dmitry declined to give his last name.  He said a classmate had been arrested during protests over the presidential elections last December.  Her parents were fired from their jobs.  After she was released from jail, she went to study in Poland.

Dmitry said that after the devaluation, his mother’s monthly salary at a childcare center has fallen to $190.  He said he would like to emigrate, maybe joining his sister and grandmother in New Jersey in the United States.

To keep protest numbers down, the city’s subway did not stop at downtown stations this evening.  Police closed road and pedestrian access to the square.

Despite these moves, reporters said that the turnout was twice as large as at the protest one week earlier.

As policemen herded protesters away from a central meeting point, passing car drivers started to blow their horns.

Dmitry Ilyushin, who has a small business, said he came to make his little contribution.

Anything more, he said, and he would be arrested.

He did not know that as he spoke, people several blocks away were being arrested for mingling.

Dmitry, a 40-year-old government worker came from work in coat and tie.  For fear of losing his job, he refused to give his name.

Asked why he was joining the protest, he replied with his own question.

He asked, “Did you see the prices in the stores?”

As bankrupt as Greece, Belarus has enough foreign currency to pay for one, maybe two months of imports.

It looks like tougher economic times are ahead for Belarus.