Belarus police crush opposition protest

By Jussi Niemelainen in Minsk

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko did not mince his words on Monday, when he spoke about anti-government protests the previous evening.

At a press conference on Monday Lukashenko denounced the protesters as "bandits".

Police in the capital Minsk carried out the President's wishes on Monday evening on the city's Independence Square, where about 200 demonstrators had gathered - mostly students and middle-aged women.

An officer of the special forces of the police tackled a man of about 30. Another policeman kicked the man as he was lying on the ground, and a third pushed his head into the snow.

A thud could be heard as his head hit the stone paving.

"Look what they are doing", shouted a woman in her 50s, who said that her name was Svetlana.

"People are afraid. I'm afraid", she said, before breaking into sobs.

There were no riot police in the city. However, police wearing black caps, thick black jackets, black trousers, and military boots were on the scene.

On their chests they had small badges identifying themselves as special forces.

The police dragged people into a green van and a small red minibus with tinted windows.

From the open doors police could be seen dragging people inside from their jackets or their hair - wherever they could get a grip.

"The music is over. Now the vengeance begins", sighed Richard, a 21-year-old student, as he watched the actions of the special forces.

A man in civilian clothes was conspicuously recording the events on a video camera. "Secret service", Richard said.

The demonstrators appeared to be shocked, frightened, and much weaker than the powerful police. It was in stark contrast to the defiance of the previous night, when up to 20,000 opposition supporters gathered in the centre of Minsk to protest what they saw as a rigged presidential election that same day.

Sunday's demonstration clearly took the Belarus police by surprise, and they do not like surprises.

"The tactics of the opposition were completely different from what they were in 2006", says Donnacha O'Beachain, a researcher of Dublin City University, who has studied the so-called colour revolutions, and who personally witnessed the Minsk demonstration.

"Then they copied the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and set up camps of tents. Now they had a fast and efficient operation. The demonstration escalated immediately from zero to 100."

The police struck back three hours after the demonstration began, when nearly 20,000 people had marched down the main street from one central square to another.

On Monday morning the atmosphere was one of resignation. Local residents waiting for a bus tried to look the other way when police dragged a screaming young woman to a van with bars in its windows, which had been brought to the bus stop.

"I would like to believe in a change. During the election campaign everything looked freer", said 21-year-old student Alesei.

"But everything got worse. The elections were a farce. We have not had democratic presidential elections since 11994, when Lukashenko took power."

A short distance away Richard was talking about a comedy. He pointed to a man in a yellow coat standing among the police.

"I saw him at the demonstration on Sunday. He was throwing stones at windows and shouting slogans against Lukashenko.

On Monday he was holding a police radio.

JUSSI NIEMELAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat


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