Belarus: police break opposition protests

The countdown continues: how long before the idiot left in the West starts rallying around Lukashenko? From AP, March 24:

MINSK, Belarus – Police stormed the opposition tent camp in the Belarusian capital early Friday and rounded up hundreds of demonstrators who spent a fourth night protesting President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in a disputed election. A Canadian freelance journalist was among those in custody.

The arrests came after six large police trucks and about 100 helmeted riot police with clubs pulled up to October Square in central Minsk about 3 a.m. The police milled about for a few minutes before plowing into the camp.

The United States quickly condemned the police operation, and the European Union said it would expand sanctions against the former Soviet republic and personally punish Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994.

Belarus ally Russia, however, said the news media had distorted the severity of the operation.

Belarus forces first wrestled about 50 resisting demonstrators into the trucks. The rest of the 200 to 300 demonstrators then filed into the vehicles quietly, seeing that the end had come for the days-long protest that was unprecedented in the authoritarian ex-Soviet republic.

Most journalists were kept about 18 metres away, behind police lines.

The circumstances surrounding the arrest of the Canadian were not clear. However,

Pamela Greenwell, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa, confirmed the arrest in Minsk of “a young Canadian freelance journalist.”

Following its usual practice, the department refused to identify the Canadian. Greenwell said assistance was being offered through the British Consulate in Minsk and that the man’s family in Canada had been contacted.

Reporters at the scene said the police carried long truncheons but were not seen beating demonstrators as they had often done when breaking up smaller opposition rallies in past years.

By the end of the 15-minute operation, all protesters had been taken away, leaving only the remains of their encampment – about 20 tents, blankets, refuse and several of the red-white flags they had been waving to signify freedom. City workers with dump trucks and bulldozers cleared the debris.

The dismantling of the camp left in doubt the prospects for opposition forces who had rallied behind presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich. He has called for a new vote without the participation of the iron-fisted Lukashenko, whose election he contends was unconstitutional because he was allowed to run for a third term after an allegedly fraudulent referendum in 2004 abolished term limits.

“The authorities are destroying freedom, truth and justice. There was only enough democracy for three days and this shows the essence of the regime that has been established in Belarus,” Milinkevich told The Associated Press on Friday.

The United States, a persistently harsh critic of Lukashenko, was quick to denounce the raid.

“As we have said before, we condemn all acts by the government of Belarus to deprive the citizens of that country of their right to peacefully express their views,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said in Washington.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said the 25 EU leaders decided to impose restrictions against those responsible for the raid, including Lukashenko.

The EU decision puts Lukashenko on the same blacklist as Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Burma’s military leaders, all of whom have a freeze on their European assets and visa bans against them.

Greenwell said the Canadian government was “in consultation with our allies on possible responses to the flawed elections in Belarus.”

“The prime minister made it clear we will work with other free and democratic societies in developing our response to the situation,” she said.

On Thursday, Belarus lashed out at repeated U.S. criticism of the elections.

“The people of Belarus have made their choice and it’s absolutely irrelevant here whether the United States likes this choice or not,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said.

In Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister said there was no reason to doubt the election results, and he took issue with the media description of police storming the tent camp.

“I would not call the scenes I saw on TV today the use of force,” Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Opposition youth movement member Nikolai Ilyin, 21, said the demonstrators – many of them unshod because they had been sleeping – were taken to a Minsk jail.

“Many people were made to stand in stockinged feet in the snow for two hours. We were made to stand against a wall with our hands up, and those who would turn their heads or say something were punched in their kidneys,” Ilyin said.

He said he fainted and was hospitalized, and then fled.

Released from jail when his father came to get him, Alexander Ushko said police in the trucks “beat those who were the most active and those who were resisting, but beat them in such as way as to avoid leaving traces.”

“They punched me in the legs and the back of the head,” said Ushko, a teenager in his last year of high school.

The protests began with a rally of more than 10,000 people on Sunday, the day of the election. About 5,000 attended a second protest Monday, when a core group decided on round-the-clock protests.

Police had been detaining opposition supporters and keeping would-be protesters away from the square. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tallied more than 200 arrests in the first three days.

But a top police official said earlier in the week there was no intention to disperse the demonstration.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the pre-dawn raid Friday. An annual television awards ceremony was to be held Friday evening at the Palace of the Republic bordering the square, and the scruffy camp would have been an embarrassment to the government.

Lukashenko supporters, who credit the former collective farm director with providing economic and political stability, were happy to see the tent camp gone.

“They had no business being there; it was a stupid rally,” said Natalia, 57, a pensioner who declined to give her last name. “We live OK and if it something’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

See our last post on Belarus.

  1. Countdown over
    That didn’t take long, did it? From The Guardian, March 21:

    Less bizarre than it seems:
    The landslide in Belarus reflects its demonised leader’s refusal to back market fundamentalism

    Mark Almond in Minsk

    After the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the west did not need to look far to find another bogeyman. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus was on hand and facing re-election.

    Journalists routinely report on Belarus as a landlocked Stalinist theme park run by a Hitler-loving tyrant who makes his opponents disappear. Condoleezza Rice and her chief assistant for democracy promotion, Dan Fried, never tire of urging Americans and their Nato allies to sponsor civil-society projects in Belarus to foster true democracy there.

    Our media have a split personality when it comes to these two guardians of democracy. On Belarus they are quoted like Old Testament prophets, but mention them in connection with Iraq and people recall that they were the only US officials with President Bush and Tony Blair on January 30 2003 when Bush suggested provoking an incident with Iraq to get the war with Saddam going.

    Of course if you believed them about Iraq then you won’t choke swallowing their story about Belarus. But let’s avoid the slick argument that just because veterans of the US’s Central American policy under Reagan allege that Lukashenko has “disappeared” some vocal critics that cannot be true either.

    While unsolved cases cast a shadow over the government, the evidence is deeply contradictory: one of the “disappeared”, the former National Bank chief Tamara Vinikova, resurfaced in London months before our Foreign Office admitted she was no longer missing. The politicisation of the issue has obscured the hunt for the truth. Yet Lukashenko faced a question about the claims at his post-election press conference yesterday, when opposition journalists from newspapers widely reported as “banned” asked him questions.

    The issue isn’t unknown in Belarus, where people don’t live in an information black hole. But human-rights charges lack traction because the western-backed opposition has offered no economic platform, just echoes of these western allegations against Lukashenko.

    Although the west has never batted an eyelid about accepting a 97% vote obtained by a favourite such as Georgia’s rose-revolutionary President Saakashvili, at first sight four-fifths voting for one candidate seems hard to credit. But if you look at the socioeconomic reality of Belarus and compare it with its ex-communist neighbours, as Belarussians do, then the result is not so bizarre.

    No communist-era throwback, Belarus has an evolving market economy. But the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers. Unlike in Georgia or Ukraine, officials are not getting richer as ordinary folk get poorer. The absence of endemic corruption among civil servants and police is one reason why the wave of so-called “coloured revolutions” stopped before Minsk.

    But even if the government in Minsk is not corroded by corruption, its opposition depends upon support from abroad. If people resent anyone for getting rich quick undeservedly they resent the opposition types who receive lavish subsidies from the west to promote civil society and flaunt the latest iPod.

    The irony of the west preaching civil society and shock therapy at the same time is that you cannot have both. Western advisers made economic transformation a priority, but wherever their advice was followed it was poverty, not pluralism, that resulted. Across the old communist bloc “shock therapy” enriched a few dozen oligarchs and their foreign economic advisers, but the mass unemployment it caused and the collapse of public spending it demanded smashed the foundations of the civil society emerging under Gorbachev.

    By protecting Belarus from the ravages of free-market fundamentalists and delivering economic growth and prosperity for the mass of Belarussians, Lukashenko has sown the seeds of a pluralistic society far better than by handing the state’s assets over to half a dozen cronies of western advisers.

    Belarus is far from perfect, but it is a country where masses of ordinary people are getting on with life and getting a bit better off. That is why Lukashenko inspires fear and loathing in the thinktanks and foreign ministries of the west. By saving Belarus from mass unemployment he set a terrible example. What if the neighbours tried to copy it?

    The conflation of “civil society” and “free-market fundamentalism” is indeed sinister. But equally so is the notion that Lukashenko’s kelptocracy or (extremely) “deformed” socialism (in all-too-charitable Trotskyist formulation) represents any kind of positive alternative. Even worse is the notion that the protesters just “echo western allegations” of human rights abuses. Would these “western allegations” include those from Amnesty International, pehaps? And what right do we have to complain that the Belarussian protesters are “western-backed” if we who oppose Western imperial meddling are unwilling to offer them any solidarity?