Pro-democratic supporters mark BNR anniversary with demonstration

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people took part in a “Dzen Voli” (Freedom Day) demonstration that was held in Minsk on March 25...

 

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people took part in a “Dzen Voli” (Freedom Day) demonstration that was held in Minsk on March 25 to mark 94 years since the proclamation of the 1918 Belarusian National Republic (BNR), BelaPAN said.

Braving the rainy weather and high winds, the demonstrators gathered in the square in front of the National Academy of Sciences in the afternoon and marched to Peoples` Friendship Park, where a rally was held.

No arrests were reported during the demonstration, which had been sanctioned by the Minsk City Executive Committee. According to witnesses, police acted politely.

An opposition youth group called Malady Front did not march in the opposite direction to downtown Kastrychnitskaya Square despite its initial plans to do so. Its members joined the procession to the park, a desolate area where dogs are walked, but left the main crowd a block away from it.

A small rally was held in front of the science academy before the beginning of the march at 2 p.m. Waving white-red-white flags, banners of European Belarus, Belarusian Christian Democracy and other opposition groups, participants chanted “Long Live Belarus!” and “Freedom to Political Prisoners!” They were holding signs “Lukashenka is a dead end” and “Where is my $500?”

After the rally, the crowd set off for the park. Scholar Uladzimir Kolas, who chairs the Rada (Council) of the Belarusian Intelligentsia, and prominent politician Viktar Ivashkevich led the procession, which was 200 to 300 meters long. Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, joined the two organizers halfway.

The demonstrators marched on the sidewalk, crossing roads only when the light was green in order not to disrupt traffic.

A group of gay rights activists with rainbow flags could be seen among the crowd.

Police had fenced the rally venue in the park, putting metal detector gates. Many marchers refused to pass through the gates when arriving at the scene and walked away.

Opening the rally, Dr. Kolas described the BNR anniversary as a landmark date in the history of Belarus, noting that it should be celebrated at the state level.

Artist Ales Marachkin, another organizer of the demonstration, read out a message of greetings from Ivonka Survilla, the Canadian-based president of the BNR Rada (government in exile of the Belarusian National Republic).

The wife of prominent opposition activist Syarhey Kavalenka, who is continuing his debilitating hunger strike after being sentenced to prison, addressed the crowd next. In her speech, she called on Alyaksandr Lukashenka to show mercy as a Christian and release all political prisoners, including her husband, who she noted had described Freedom Day as a sacred holiday for the country.

Uladzimir Khalip, the father of Iryna Khalip, who is the wife of imprisoned former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikaw, expressed confidence that Belarus would become a free country one day. “Do not wait for assistance from the West or the East. Assistance should come from inside the country,” he said.

Alyaksey Yanukevich, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, expressed in his speech concern about the treatment by the authorities of the country’s historically national symbols and the Belarusian language. “Belarus is close to losing its independence as never before under Lukashenka’s rule. They want to drag us into the Eurasian Union, which can bring an end to Belarus’ statehood.”

The authorities try to make the people believe in “some obscure ideology,” but the Belarusians have no other idea but a national one, said Alyaksandr Milinkevich, leader of the Movement for Freedom. “We should unite behind it. We want Belarus to be an independent country belonging to the people, not clans.”

Politician Viktar Karnyayenka called on pro-democratic supporters to join a campaign for monitoring the coming parliamentary campaign. There are debates on whether the opposition should take part in the elections, but all share the opinion that the authorities will try to falsify them, he said.

“The Lukashenka regime has today only one weapon at hand, which is fear,” said Vital Rymashewski, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party. “We are speaking many beautiful words today, while Belarusians are dying in prisons.” The politician called for a boycott of the parliamentary elections.

Mr. Ivashkevich joined his call for the boycott. “The authorities want to get us to take part in the pseudo-elections,” he said. “Boycott the regime! Boycott the elections!”

The rally took some 30 minutes. Talking to reporters after it, Mr. Ivashkevich said that he believed that the demonstration had been successful. “I am happy that there are thousands of people in Belarus who are ready to defend their positions as citizens."

The short-lived Belarusian National Republic came into existence shortly before the end of the First World War, when Bolshevik forces left Minsk and the city was occupied by German troops. Although the German authorities remained reticent, if not actually hostile toward the BNR provisional government, they did not interfere much with its political functioning. On March 25, 1918, the provisional government (Rada) together with representatives of the Vilna (Vilnius) Council proclaimed the independence of the BNR. A national flag with white, red and white horizontal stripes was adopted, together with a state seal depicting "Pahonya" (Pursuit), the old emblem of the Grand Duchy of Litva.

Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Georgia, Germany, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland recognized the BNR de jure.

To counteract the effect of the proclamation of the BNR, the Russian Bolsheviks set up a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in Smolensk on January 1, 1919. After the Red Army re-entered Minsk, a Communist government replaced the Rada there on January 5. The Rada was forced to go into emigration.