Thousands Rally for Change in Belarus
Monday, March 26, 2007
MOSCOW, March 25 -- As many as 10,000 protesters took to the streets of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Sunday in one of the largest demonstrations ever staged against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The demonstrators marched in three groups to a meeting away from the city center after riot police prevented them from entering a central square. No injuries were reported, but several activists were arrested, organizers said.
The rally was addressed by Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko for the presidency last year in elections that were widely condemned as flawed.
"We are the majority. We will win," Milinkevich told the protesters, who were marking the anniversary of the establishment in 1918 of an independent republic that was quickly suppressed by Red Army troops. "The authorities will fall under the pressure of their lies."
Belarus, which borders the European Union, Russia and Ukraine, attained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Lukashenko, a former collective-farm manager, won a third term last year with nearly 83 percent of the vote. Milinkevich, a former physics professor, received 6 percent.
Lukashenko, who brooks little dissent, has become increasingly isolated as his country's relations with Russia, its principal ally, have frayed because of the Kremlin's unwillingness to continue to subsidize his rule with cheap energy supplies.
Increasingly disillusioned with Russia, Lukashenko has hinted that he might try to improve relations with the West. The United States and the E.U. have long ostracized his government, frequently called the last dictatorship in Europe.
Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, said Sunday that the E.U. was ready for a "full partnership" with Belarus, but only if Lukashenko adopts democratic reforms.
Lukashenko and 30 senior Belarusan officials are barred from traveling to E.U. countries. The union has barred only two other heads of state, the leaders of Zimbabwe and Burma.