More than 100 people in Minsk stage protest against military exercise

Former presidential candidates Mikalay Statkevich and Uladzimir Nyaklyayew led a crowd of more than a hundred people who demonstrated in central Minsk on Friday to express protest against Belarus` coming military exercise with Russia.

The unsanctioned protest took place on the 503rd anniversary of the Battle of Orsha, in which Grand Duchy of Lithuania troops defeated a much larger Russian army.

The demonstrators displayed Belarus` historically national white-red-white flags and chanted "Zhyve Belarus!" (Long live Belarus!) as they gathered in Kastrychnitski Square amid a heavy presence of plainclothesmen. One protester was holding up a sign saying, "Russian soldier go home, there is no vodka here."

Speaking to reporters in the square, Mr. Nyaklyayew explained that opposition demonstrations attracted few people because many people were afraid of being arrested. "But if people see now that everything is passing off peacefully, the number of participants will be rising," he added.

Paval Sevyarynets, a co-chairman of Belarusian Christian Democracy, told reporters that Russian troops should fear "partisans" rather than protesters taking to the streets.

Addressing the crowd, Mr. Nyaklyayew warned that Belarus should avoid a military alliance with Russia. "We have gathered here to say no to the consequences of dragging Belarus into an exercise with a country that opposes NATO and the entire world," said the poet-turned-politician. "We have gathered to warn our leadership that the policy of drawing Belarus into a conflict between the East and the West threatens the future of Belarus, its government and all people."

Prominent opposition activist Vyachaslaw Siwchyk described the presence of Russian troops on Belarusian soil as a "great danger." "And today there should be enough people in Belarus who are ready to defend their Motherland," he said. "Generations of ancestors defended it for us and our task is to make this land remain Belarusian forever."

Most of the protesters raised their arms when activist Yawhen Afnahel asked who was ready to take up arms to defend Belarus against a foreign invasion.

After adopting a resolution condemning the Zapad 2017 maneuvers as a "threat to our state`s sovereignty" and warning "all possible aggressors" of their readiness to defend Belarus` independence, the crowd walked down Independence Avenue to Yakub Kolas Square. As the demonstrators passed Victory Square, Messrs. Statkevich and Nyaklyayew broke away from the crowd and laid flowers at the 40-meter-tall Victory Obelisk, on the side where Soviet partisans are depicted. They rejoined the crowd afterward.

When the demonstrators reached Yakub Kolas Square, they swore a symbolic oath of allegiance to Belarus at Mr. Statkevich`s request, vowing to fight for the country`s freedom and independence and stay loyal to it.

As the crowd started dispersing, Mr. Statkevich announced plans to stage what he called the March of Angry Belarusians 2.0, a protest against falling living standards and economic woes, on October 20.

The demonstrators dispersed by 9 p.m. No arrests were immediately reported.

Zapad 2017 is scheduled to take place in Belarus and Russia`s Kaliningrad exclave between September 14 and 20 and will feature some 12,700 troops. The exercise in Belarus will involve slightly more than 7,000 Belarusian troops and some 3,000 Russian troops, 370 tanks and armored vehicles, up to 150 artillery and multiple-launch rocket system units, and more than 40 warplanes and helicopters.