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.

Sergei Grits/AP
Belarusian policemen detain protesters during an action "Revolution via social network" in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, June 22. Human rights advocates and activists in Belarus are claiming that security agents have interrogated social media activists who called for an opposition rally across the authoritarian ex-Soviet nation.

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.

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.

"The situation is really tense," says Andrei Bastunets, deputy chair of the independent Association of Journalists in Minsk. "Salaries are effectively cut in half, while prices are up. People are getting restless."

Trouble between Minsk and Moscow

Belarus's state controlled economy has been in trouble since Russian subsidies and cheap energy started tapering off a couple years ago, amid increasingly acrimonious relations between Minsk and Moscow. Lukashenko worsened matters by ramping up state spending by 40 percent in advance of his reelection campaign last year, including a 50 percent salary hike for all public sector workers.

Lukashenko, who's run Belarus with a mixture of economic paternalism and police state rigor since 1994, won reelection with 80 percent of the votes. But he lost European Union pledges of assistance by launching a brutal crackdown against political opponents, who took to the streets to allege electoral fraud. More than 600 people were arrested, including seven presidential candidates, and many remain in prison.

Moscow, which previously bankrolled Lukashenko, has put a heavy price on any further assistance.

"Russia has abandoned its imperial ambitions in the traditional sense. It's not going to be sending tanks into Belarus," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "What Russia wants is for Lukashenko to let go of valuable assets that the state controls, and sell them to Russian interests. That includes pipelines, refineries, potash and maybe a few choice industries."

The other main potential source of financial relief, the International Monetary Fund, has insisted on similar conditions, including a free-floating ruble.

"All creditors insist that Belarus enact reforms, but Lukashenko resists," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist who was presidential candidate for the liberal United Civil Party. "He's using all the tools of the centralized economy to dig in and hold on."

Lukashenko's policies to manage the budget shortfall, estimated at 16 percent of GDP, have shifted most of the pain onto the population. Measures include a steep devaluation of the Belarussian ruble, state price controls on basic foodstuffs, fuel rationing and export bans to prevent Belarussians from trading in neighboring Poland or Russia.

Economic meltdown

Experts say efforts to freeze gas and basic food prices have led to panic buying and the inevitable shortages, while the best produce now finds its way onto a burgeoning black market. The Belarussian ruble has lost about 60 percent of its value since January, including a whopping 36 percent devaluation in May. A US dollar officially costs about 5,000 rubles, but can rarely be found in currency exchanges; on the street dollars can be bought for 8,000 rubles and up.

Belarus's industrial economy, which depends heavily on increasingly unaffordable imported inputs, has slowed disastrously.

"Many of my students, who combine study with work, say they've been fired, forced to take unpaid leave, or had their salaries slashed," says Oleg Manayev, director of the Institute of Sociology, Economy and Political Studies.

"Our polling shows that people overwhelmingly blame the authorities for the deterioration in living standards," he says. "That's something new. We didn't see that even a couple years ago."

Lukashenko may find temporary salvation in yielding to Russian demands and letting go of key assets, though that may eventually undermine his 17-year-old system of rule, especially the ability to placate the population with high public spending.

Early this month Moscow media reported that Russian fertilizer tycoon Suleiman Kerimov, a close associate of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was in talks to buy a controlling share of Belaruskali, one of the world's biggest potash producers, for as much as $7 billion.

That kind of cash infusion might enable Lukashenko to close this year's budget gap, consolidate his rule and possibly ride out the storm, says Mr. Romanchuk.

"We are deep into this crisis, and we don't see any steps toward liberalization from Lukashenko," he says. "If he can get what he wants by selling off one or two assets, the pressure will be off and he won't see any need to undertake reforms," that might eventually allow a market-driven economic recovery.

"That might work for him, at least for a while, but things for ordinary Belarussians are going to keep getting worse," he says.

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