Belarus divided, doubtful after clashes


Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus - Police kept a close watch Sunday on the square that was the center of an unprecedented week of protests, determined to prevent the opposition from renewing demonstrations against Belarus' authoritarian president.

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

Many Belarusians now are confronting an array of unanswered questions: It is unclear how much support the opposition really has, how much dissent authorities will tolerate or what effect a stream of denunciations from the West will have.

The EU called on its European partners to join in protesting against Saturday's violence and the detention of Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader who instigated a march to a jail where detained opposition supporters are being held.

A rights group said more than 100 protesters were detained Saturday in the tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic.

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

E-mails and cell phone text messages reportedly encouraged supporters to gather Sunday evening at Oktyabrskaya Square.

Around 40 police officers kept watch at the edges of the square, eyeing small groups of young people - some clearly dissidents and others apparently just hanging out on a day when sunlight cut the bite of near-freezing temperatures. There were no immediate arrests or scuffles.

After dark, more than 100 mostly young people lit candles and laid flowers at a monument to the 52 people who were 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 last week. 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," said student Aliena Efanova.

The commemoration lasted about 90 minutes. After holding a moment of silence, the group began to put out their candles, and police ordered the crowd to leave.

Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said the 25-nation bloc "urges the international partners of the EU, and in particular Belarus' other neighbors, to follow the same approach toward Belarus," in an apparent reference to Russia.

The EU statement was the latest in a series from the United States and Europe denouncing the March 19 elections that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a third term.

Lukashenko despises the West and criticism from there fuels his contentions that the West is out to overthrow him. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the statements "are on the border of an anti-Belarusian hysteria."

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion on last week's events, and the population is 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 students who back the opposition are often expelled.

But in Dmitry Kursky's view, the demonstrators were irresponsible and goaded by money he believes they received from the West.

"All the opposition is doing is spending the (money) they got from the West. Once they spend the first $100,000, they will pocket the rest," the 23-year-old said.

How much staying power the opposition has was in doubt after Saturday. Activists, encouraged by police allowing them to hold a meeting of some 7,000 in a park, decided to push their luck by marching to a jail where other opposition supporters were being held.

A phalanx of shielded riot police forced them back with percussion grenades and beat some people in the front lines.

Kozulin was arrested in the melee and his wife Irina said Sunday that he was likely to be charged with hooliganism, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Many suspect Kozulin of being a Russian-funded provocateur.

Alexander Milinkevich, the most popular of the opposition leaders, was angry the march was attempted, saying "yesterday's march decreased the number of our supporters."