Dozens arrested in Belarus 'clapping' protest

Police in Minsk use tear gas and force to break up protests against Alexander Lukashenko's 17-year rule.

    Police fired tear gas and beat up anti-government protesters before arresting them, witnesses said [AFP]

    Police in Belarus have arrested dozens of people in a crackdown on planned anti-government protests, according to activists.

    The arrests came as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whol has ruled the former Soviet country for 17 years, told an open-air rally that a plot was in the offing to overthrow him and that he would block it.

    Speaking before a military parade on Belarus's Independence Day, Lukashenko said: "[Somebody] is trying to copy a 'coloured revolution' scenario here."

    The comments were in reference to the series of protests that led to the change of leadership in other ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-2004.

    "They want to bring us to our knees," the former Soviet state farm director declared. "This is not going to happen."

    Plain-clothes police started leading away several young people apparently identified as potential protesters even before Lukashenko had begun speaking.

    Around 20 people were arrested, including Pavel Sverdlov, the correspondent for EU-funded and Poland-based Belarussian radio Evroradio, said Nastasya Loiko of the Vyasna (Spring) rights group.

    Vyasna said later that at least 50 more people had been arrested during the evening protest.

    Police fired tear gas and beat up activists before arresting them, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.

    Clapping protests

    The main page of the "Revolution through the Social Network" group that organised the protests on a Russian social networking site was blocked, AFP said.

    The protesters, responding to calls on the site, sought to show their dissatisfaction with Lukashenko by continuously clapping their hands, with police moving in to arrest those who participated.

    Opposition to Lukashenko has grown bolder in the tightly controlled eastern European nation of 9.5 million as it struggles to overcome a currency crisis.
    The balance of payments crisis was caused by a 30-40 per cent hikes in public sector wages and pensions last year.

    It was aimed at ensuring Lukashenko's comfortable re-election last December, but ended up creating a current account trade deficit.

    That led to a 36 per cent devaluation of the Belarussian rouble last year, virtually wiping out the gains of the wage rises and severely curbing companies' means of purchasing vital imports.

    The crisis has emboldened a younger wave of protesters, outside the established opposition mainstream, to issue online calls for "silent" protests, marked only by clapping.

    Long a pariah in the West because of his rough handling of the political opposition, Lukashenko is being pushed further towards Russia which long subsidised the Belarussian economy with cheap oil and gas supplies.   

    Moscow has backed disbursement of $3bn of bailout money over three years to Belarus   

    But it is increasingly pressing a harder bargain in economic relations, saying it wants state-held sectors of the economy privatised for sale to Russian big business.
    The United States and the European Union have imposed travel sanctions on Lukashenko and a large number of figures in the Belarussian establishment over a police crackdown on the opposition last December.

    They have also acted to restrict the operations of some key Belarussian companies.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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