Police prevent opposition activists from staging march in downtown Minsk to celebrate Belarusian National Republic anniversary

The crowd stood there for about 15 minutes, facing a heavy cordon on the other side of Browki Street...

 

Police in Minsk on Wednesday prevented opposition activists from staging a march in downtown Minsk to celebrate the 91st anniversary of the Belarusian National Republic (BNR).

Last week the city government denied permission for a march from the Academy of Sciences to Kastrychnitskaya Square, suggesting instead that the demonstrators march from the National Academy of Sciences to Bangalore Square on the outskirts of Minsk.

Defying the ban, about 300 people, mostly activists of opposition youth groups called Malady Front and Maladaya Belarus, walked along a sideway of Independence Avenue for about 200 meters until dozens of police in full riot gear blocked their path at the first crossroads.

The crowd stood there for about 15 minutes, facing a heavy cordon on the other side of Browki Street. Police repeatedly warned over a loudspeaker that the march was unauthorized and threatened to use physical force and "special means" against the demonstrators.

Prominent young opposition activist Yawhen Afnahel and Maladaya Belarus leader Artur Finkevich finally called on their associates to turn back. Authorities showed their true colors by deploying riot police to prevent "an absolutely peaceful march," Mr. Afnahel said, adding the celebration of the BNR anniversary should not be marred by clashes with police.

The crowd headed back to the National Academy of Sciences, occasionally entering the roadway. They eventually rejoined 500 or so people who had stood at the initial assembly place all this time, displaying Belarus' historic white-red-white flags and flags of the European Union. Meanwhile, unidentified people scattered images of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and began burning them on the asphalt.

When approached by a BelaPAN correspondent, US Charge d’Affaires Jonathan Moore, who was observing the demonstration, expressed hope that the event would pass off peacefully and that authorities would show "professionalism and restraint."

Also observing the demonstration were representatives of the OSCE Office in Minsk and the embassies of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

The demonstration began at 6 p.m., with about 2,000 people gathering in front of the Academy of Sciences.

"We understand that there're people who have come here to celebrate, just as there're those who are on duty," Lyavon Barshchewski, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, said in his opening speech. "However, a celebration is a celebration and we should greet each other [on the holiday]."

He expressed hope that the BNR anniversary would sooner or later become a national holiday.

"No one wants to go to the swamp, to the place where people walk their dogs [reference to Bangalore Square]," said Mikalay Statkevich, leader of the founding committee for the Social Democratic Party "Narodnaya Hramada." "It's impossible to stand there with our sacred white-red-white flags and our sacred symbols."

It was difficult to hear the speeches because of poor sound equipment.

No arrests were reported during the demonstration.