Belarus cracks down on growing protests
Belarus security services detained at least 450 protesters in the wake of rallies across the country against the strong-armed measures of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is making good on his promise to "strike hard" against any Belarussian citizens heeding social-network appeals to protest against growing economic hardships.Skip to next paragraph
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By Thursday, more than 450 people who took part in flash-mob rallies in more than 30 towns around Belarus had been rounded up by the KGB security services, and accused of using Twitter, Facebook, and the Russian-language Vkontakte to facilitate illegal gatherings, according to the independent Belapan news agency. According to the agency, many face up to 15 days in prison for "hooliganism."
The largest such meeting saw thousands of mostly young protesters assemble, for the third Wednesday in a row, in the capital city of Minsk's central Oktyabr Square, for a wordless, hand-clapping display of "displeasure" over Mr. Lukashenko's strong-armed measures to fill a gaping budget deficit that have slashed living standards and introduced Soviet-style shortages in the space of a few months.
Organizers had called on protesters to remain silent, display no banners or slogans, and behave peacefully in order to evade Belarus's draconian demonstrations law, which bans almost any explicitly political meeting that has not been sanctioned by authorities.
Unlike previous occasions, when police merely dispersed the rallies, they reportedly moved in and arrested more than 100 in Minsk alone. A statement issued by police Wednesday warned that what looks like a "childish prank" on the Internet becomes a serious crime in the "real world," and blamed "instigators" abroad for stirring up the passions of Belarussian youth.
"The instigators have gone as far as to articulate openly their main purpose, which is staging a revolution through social networking sites in Belarus," the police statement said. "However ridiculous the purpose may appear, some people can really buy into these openly criminal intentions," and face severe legal penalties, it added.
Social media-power revolt
Flash mobs powered by social networks are a new experience for Belarus, a closed, post-Soviet nation of 10 million, often referred to in the West as "Europe's last dictatorship."
But such protests are likely to grow, and become more effective, as the country's summer of discontent grinds on. In a May opinion survey by the independent Institute of Sociology, Economy, and Political Studies in Minsk, over half of Belarussians said they could "not feed" or could "barely feed" their families on incomes whose buying power has been plunging since January.