Opposition Vows to Hold Rally in Belarus


Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - The Belarusian People's Republic lasted only a few months, nearly unnoticed in wake of World War I. Almost 90 years later, its brief life is an inspiration to the opposition challenging authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Opposition leaders have vowed to hold a massive gathering Saturday on the anniversary of the first independent Belarusian state, hoping to galvanize tens of thousands to join the protest against Lukashenko's disputed election victory.

But police have indicated they have no intention of allowing the gathering, storming an opposition tent camp in Minsk's main square Friday and arresting hundreds of people who had been part of unprecedented round-the-clock protests in this tightly controlled ex-Soviet state.

Saturday's demonstration will likely determine whether the protests to demand new elections will reach a critical mass or fade out. The U.S. and Europe have criticized the elections as seriously flawed and said they would impose sanctions.

Opposition supporters returned to the square at twilight Friday, but black-clad police pushed them down the street and detained at least three. On Saturday morning, heavy machinery picked up snow on the square, dumping some of it where the tent camp had stood. Riot police gathered in nearby courtyards.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said protesters would find another place to gather if police blocked Oktyabrskaya Square.

Traditionally, March 25 has been a rallying day for the opposition. The demonstrations have been dispersed quickly, and often brutally. This year had looked like it might be different.

Security forces surprisingly let the protest camp exist for four days before moving in.

Speculation was that Lukashenko was told to lay off by Russian President Vladimir Putin - who may fear that his links to the leader dubbed ``Europe's last dictator'' could imperil Russia's membership in the Group of Eight club of industrialized nations, which Moscow is chairing this year.

That would be a delicious irony for the protesters.

They contend that Belarus is only nominally independent at best, and that effectively it is a suburb of Russia. Therein lies the resonance of March 25 - Freedom Day, as its observers call it.

The first independent Belarus - the BNR in its Belarusian acronym - was declared on that date in 1918, after the Russian army withdrew from what is now Belarus under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. It was an assertion of pride, not of strategic astuteness.

Although the Russian army had moved out, the German army had come in. The occupiers prevented the BNR from establishing a constitution or a military. Bolshevik Russia then decided to disregard the treaty, swept westward to kick out the Germans and reoccupy the territory. The BNR was dead after a little under 10 months, its leaders fleeing into exile.

It did have enough time to establish a flag, a white-and-red banner. It became Belarus' flag again after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Lukashenko, who was the only Soviet Belarusian lawmaker to vote against the USSR's dissolution, pushed a referendum to adopt a variant of the Soviet-era flag in 1995.

That was among the first of many moves that the opposition resents as destruction of a distinct Belarusian identity. Under Lukashenko, Belarusian-language schools have been closed, though the language is still taught as a subject. The newspaper published by his administration retains the name Sovietskaya Belorussiya and Lukashenko himself speaks only in Russian.

Milinkevich, in response, made a point of speaking only Belarusian in his daily appearances at the demonstrations.

``In our country, the Belarusian language is a form of protest ... a demonstration that the Belarusian people are for freedom, and for independence,'' he told The Associated Press.