Belarus divided after police clash with opposition

Steve Gutterman, Canadian Press

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarusian police on Sunday monitored the square that was the centre of unprecedented protests, determined to prevent any renewal of demonstrations against the country's authoritarian president.

The protests that culminated Saturday in a clash with riot police left the opposition daunted by authorities' tough line but determined to try to press ahead.

They left all of Belarus confronting an array of questions: how much support does the opposition really have, how much dissent will authorities tolerate and how much effect will a stream of angry Western statements have?

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry claimed Sunday that police had shown "restraint and patience," and officers resorted to force only after being attacked by demonstrators.

The ministry called on the EU and the United States to "adopt uniform standards for all in assessing the actions of law enforcement (agencies) both in Belarus and in their own countries," pointing to the recent police clashes with protesters in Paris.

The recent EU and U.S. statements "are on the border of an anti-Belarusian hysteria," the ministry said.

The EU called on its European partners to join in protesting Saturday's violence and opposition leader Alexander Kozulin's detention.

It was the latest in a series of statements from the United States and Europe denouncing the March 19 elections that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a third term.

Lukashenko despises the West and each criticism from there provides fuel for his contentions that the West is out to overthrow him.

E-mails and cell phone text messages, meanwhile, reportedly were encouraging activists to gather Sunday evening at Oktyabrskaya Square to lay flowers commemorating the protesters' small tent camp that lasted through four nights before a police raid.

They were also asked to remember what a rights groups said were more than 100 people detained Saturday during clashes with police.

Around 40 police kept watch at the square's edges, monitoring small groups of young people. There were no immediate reports of arrests or scuffles.

More than 100 mostly young people lit candles and laid flowers after dark at a monument to the 52 people killed in an underpass during a 1999 stampede.

The stampede had no political connection - it took place as rock concert spectators were trying to escape a downpour - but those who came Sunday said their actions were in solidarity with those injured and arrested in last week's protests.

The choice of location appeared aimed at finding a strategy for expressing dissent without antagonizing authorities.

"Students have awakened. . . . The more the authorities crush us, the bigger our protest will be," student Aliena Efanova said.

The commemoration lasted about 90 minutes. After holding a moment of silence, police moved into the crowd and told them to leave.

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the last week's events, and the population appears to be split.

"One must fight fear, because fear is the authorities' strongest weapon," said Alexei, a 20-year-old student unwilling to give his last name because authorities often expel opposition-backing students from universities.

But in Dmitry Kursky's view, the demonstrators were irresponsible.

"All the opposition is doing is spending the (money) they got from the West," the 23-year-old said, echoing accusations made in state-run media.

How much staying power the opposition has is in doubt after Saturday.

Activists had been encouraged when authorities allowed them to hold a rally of some 7,000 in a park after being banned from the square. They decided to push their luck by marching to a jail where other opposition supporters were being detained.

But riot police confronted them before they got there and forced them back with percussion grenades, beating some people.

The march was instigated by Kozulin, an opposition leader whom many suspect of being a Russian-funded provocateur but who exerts a certain influence.

He was arrested and his wife Irina said Sunday that she understands he is likely to be charged with hooliganism, which can bring a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Alexander Milinkevich, the most popular opposition leader, was angry that the march was attempted, suggesting it was a publicity stunt and that it may have a negative impact on the opposition.

But a 17-year-old passer-by at the square, who gave her name only as Kseniya, said, "I think it will have the opposite effect: more people will actually rally, it will prompt people to act."