Belorussian Regime Crackdowns on Pro-Democracy Protestors
Police shot in the air with live ammunition and with the stun grenades at the unarmed protesters on November 2 but they fearlessly continued their protest march in Minsk.
Every big Sunday protest in Belarus has a motto. On this Sunday tens of thousands came to the "March against Terror", because terror was what the ruler Mr. Alexander Lukashenko had announced only slightly veiled. "We will not take any more prisoners from today," he threatened on Friday at a meeting with employees of the Interior Ministry. Red lines have been crossed. Anyone who even touches a member of the military, said Mr. Lukashenko, must "at least walk away without hands".
On Sunday, the police and military forces chased people apart at the beginning of the protest, fired warning shots, reportedly chased the fleeing back into the inner courtyards of apartment buildings and threw stun grenades. The Wesna Human Rights Center initially spoke of around 170 people arrested in the evening. Journalists were among them. There are no independent figures for the demonstration. However, there were significantly fewer demonstrators than a week ago.
The metro stations were blocked, the mobile internet was blocked as on the previous weekends. Some photos on social media showed large platoons of armored vehicles and rescue workers in green camouflage uniforms aiming firearms at protesters looking like soldiers in combat. Only a small part of the protest march reached its destination: the Kurapaty Memorial for Victims of Stalinist Terror, a burial ground on the outskirts of Minsk.
Since the rigged presidential election on August 9th, people across the country have been protesting against Mr Lukashenko every weekend. Last week began with an ultimatum expired for the ruler. Opposition leader Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had demanded that Mr. Lukashenko resign, end the violence and release the political prisoners. Mr. Lukashenko let the deadline pass a week ago on Sunday. Since Monday, all Belarusians have been called to a nationwide general strike, which so far has only been followed by isolated groups of workers.
State workers called in sick
Those who went out of work in state-run companies were threatened with prison, job loss and, in some cases, violence. A nationwide strike had already started in August, after which several workers and organizers of the strike fled abroad because of the pressure. One of the strike leaders, Mr. Sergei Dylewski, spent several weeks in prison and then left for Poland. Nevertheless, workers from important state-owned companies such as the fertilizer manufacturer Grodno-Azot and the Minsk tractor factory decided to go on strike, and some simply called in sick.
They were supported by employees of private companies, cafes and other shops were closed earlier this week. The strike was particularly visible at numerous universities, although striking students were threatened with de-registration. According to Svetlana Tichanowskaja, 300 students had already lost their place at university by Friday. Lukashenko also exchanged the directors of three universities in Minsk and Brest. On the first day of the strike, the police arrested almost 600 people.
From then on, Lukashenko increased the pressure even further. On Thursday, the border guards announced that they would close the border with Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine - because of the Wuhan virus, the regime's officials explained. Until then the Belarusian authorities have downplayed the virus. Foreigners have temporarily been banned from entering the country since Sunday. There were reports that young Belarusians studying abroad were also turned away at the border.
On Thursday, Lukashenko appointed Police Major General Ivan Kubrakow as the new Interior Minister. His predecessor, Mr. Yuri Karayew, is on the EU sanctions list because he suppressed protests in August with particular violence. Shortly before he was replaced as minister, Mr. Karayev said that the police and security forces could also use live ammunition against demonstrators if they were planning acts of sabotage. Mr. Karayew is now supposed to keep order in the Grodno region, and Mr. Lukashenko has appointed similar special representatives in Minsk and Brest.