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The situation in Europe's last dictatorship appears to have declined into a strange incoherence where both the government forces and the opposition give mixed signals about their intentions. On Friday, Aleksander Lukashenko ordered a roundup of the few hundred protestors still in the streets a week after a rigged election electrified the Belarussians into action. Today the protestors returned for the next scheduled event -- and the government did nothing to stop them. However, while the main body of protestors voluntarily shut down the demonstration in order to consolidate their support, another faction attempted to stage another in front of a police station -- and gave Lukashenko an opportunity to demonstrate his brutality:
Black-clad riot police clubbed demonstrators as government opponents marched Saturday in defiance of a show of force by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko that has drawn U.S. and European Union sanctions.
A week into protests set off by the disputed election that handed Lukashenko a third term, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told a crowd of thousands that momentum is growing to bring democracy to Belarus.
"We are starting work against dictatorship, and this work will sooner or later bear its fruit," he said.
But Milinkevich also urged a monthlong recess in protests, apparently hoping to calm tensions and gain time to build opposition forces, which have fallen far short of the huge outpourings that peacefully overturned governments in Ukraine and Georgia.
The day of confrontation and wildly swinging emotions left two big questions for the former Soviet republic of 10 million people, characterized in the West as Europe's last dictatorship: How much dissent are the authorities willing to allow and how much support does the opposition have?
Neither question got an answer today. After perhaps 20,000 people protested without any incident, the main portion supporting Milinkevich went home after the Lukashenko opponent decided not to pursue any more open demonstrations. Instead, he decided that it would be best to shelve the demonstrations for another month, waiting for the anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown in order to take advantage of an emotional event in order to press for more participation. Lukashenko has tried to move people back into the area evacuated after the nuclear-power accident, a policy that has caused widespread anger among Belarussians.
However, another Lukashenko opponent, Alexander Kozulin, decided to step up the pressure today rather than wait, and took a few hundred people to the police station where Minsk police held some of the previous day's protestors. Apparently hoping that the police would join them or stand aside, the Kozulin group surrounded the station and chanted slogans. Unfortunately for Kozulin, the Minsk police did not join them but began to beat and arrest the protestors. One man died and several injured in the melee, and police captured dozens of Kozulin's followers.
Publius Pundit reports:
The protest ended peacefully. He had called on the authorities not to break it up because he would make sure that it didn’t get out of control, and so the police didn’t move in. At no time before has such a large amount of people been able to gather to denounce Lukashenko without being severely beaten. Exactly one year ago even only a couple of hundred people were able to gather before being whacked with police batons. It was definitely a historic day.
But… It didn’t last for long. The other opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin, marched a few hundred people to a detention center where the October Square demonstrators had been taken to. They faced a SWAT team and the army. Just hours after the peaceful rally, they were all beaten.
The head of the SWAT team beat Kozulin and arrested him. They fired smoke grenades, noise-makers, and tear gas into the crowd. They exploded directly above people. One by one they were stripped away and beaten in the face, back, and legs with batons until they bled. The women, instead, were punched in the face. Then they were taken away in paddywagons to who knows where. At least one person is confirmed dead with a skull injury. Even sicker is that Belarus state television showed up so that they could film a beaten man and say that he was stomped on by his fellow protestors. The protestors are hardly the animals here. All they could do was throw snowballs back at them.
This looks like the beginnings of a split in the opposition at a time when unity is critical in facing down the government. Milinkevich apparently was furious with the action by his ostensible partner in opposition, claiming that Kozulin "spoiled this holiday". Given enough fuel, this could degenerate into a dangerous split between a reformer attempting to use the system to patiently bring down a dictator and a renegade insistent on provoking violent reactions from him. Belarussians do not yet appear ready to revolt against Lukashenko and his pro-Moscow tilt, and having this kind of tension between opposition leaders will not give fence-sitters a warm feeling about jumping into the movement.
Milinkevich may be right not to pursue the demonstrations further if the two leaders cannot coordinate any better than this. The movement has to decide whether it wants to unseat the Lukashenko regime by peaceful rallies or through the exposure of the state-approved brutality seen in Minsk. The latter would give Lukashenko too much latitude to keep applying force in suppressing the opposition. Putting it off for a month seems a long time for the momentum to simmer; Milinkevich may not have much passion left in his movement.
But if the opposition appears confused, so does Lukashenko. Clearly the rallies have him rattled and unsure how to react. Milinkevich forced him into enduring today's more peaceful rally, accepting Milinkevich's word that his opponent would keep the crowd under control. His security forces responded to his orders when Kazulin stole a march on Milinkevich, but he cannot be sure that they will remain loyal if repeatedly asked to beat up unarmed and peaceful protestors. He can't afford to have the demonstrations but cannot afford to keep using force to break them up. So far the threshold seems to depend on the size of the rally.
That's why Milinkevich would be better advised to keep the rallies and demonstrations going instead of having them drop off the radar screen as proposed. Lukashenko is on the ropes and continued pressure would eventually strip him of all his options. Hopefully, Milinkevich and Kazulin can coordinate their strategies and tactics in order to make that day come soon.
ADDENDUM: The AP takes this bleak picture of the demonstration:
Not much joy in this protest, and the woman in the picture looks rather haunting.Sphere It View blog reactions
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