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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clashes Rock Minsk, Prime Minister Quits

Events in Belarus were moving quickly towards crisis Monday, as Prime Minster Mikhail Chigir resigned and some deputies were bunkered down inside the parliament building after a weekend of violent clashes between police and opposition demonstrators.


The country's parliament, still called the Supreme Soviet, was also poised Monday night to begin impeachment proceedings against President Alexander Lukashenko.


But the weekend's upheavals -- all of them aimed at preventing the referendum on a new constitution Lukashenko is driving through for next Sunday -- appeared to have no impact on the president.


"The results of the referendum will be final and irreversible," Lukashenko told some 5,000 supporters at a rally in the provincial city of Gomel on Monday, Interfax reported. If approved and implemented, the new constitution would give Lukashenko unassailable powers.


"On Nov. 24 we shall dot all the i's: Those who do not want to work will be free to look for another homeland," he said. "I'm not trying to intimidate anyone but that's how it will be."


Lukashenko has already ignored the Constitutional Court and dismissed the head of the Central Election Commission in his determination to push through the referendum, which he is expected to win.


Chigir offered his resignation unless the president meets a set of demands, including scrapping the referendum, deputy speaker of the Supreme Soviet Gennady Karpenko said after meeting with Chigir. Russia's RTR television later said Lukashenko had accepted.


The defection of the prime minister, a former Lukashenko ally, was met by cheers from the 1,000 pro-democracy demonstrators who had gathered outside the parliament building in Minsk, said the opposition Belarus Popular Front spokesman Valery Buival.


"Events are moving quickly ... towards conflict," said Buival. "We have seen over the last two days that Lukashenko will not hesitate to shed blood to stay in power ... The model is the same as 1993 [when troops loyal to Boris Yeltsin shelled the Russian parliament building], except that in this case it is parliament that is fighting the fascist dictatorship being set up by Lukashenko and his clique."


Around 108 of the 192 parliamentary deputies have occupied the parliament building around the clock since Friday, ORT Channel One news reported, fearing the same fate as election commission chief Vladimir Gonchar, who Lukashenko had police force from his office Thursday. Parliament had by Monday collected the 70 signatures it needs to start impeachment proceedings against the president, but a decision on whether to go forward was expected only later Monday night.


An opposition demonstration Sunday erupted into violent clashes as the Belarussian capital, Minsk, was swamped with OMON riot police, Interfax reported. The meeting's organizers said 20 people had been injured and 10 arrested. A police spokesman said four policemen had also been injured.


Belarus' Lukashenko-appointed Security Council issued a statement following the unrest blaming the violence on "radical nationalists" acting on instructions from Belarus Popular Front leaders Zenon Poznyak and Sergei Naumchik, the first two post-Soviet emigres to be granted political asylum by the United States. "Their purpose was to provoke unrest and undermine stability," said the statement, quoted by Interfax. "Such actions are fanned by some foreign TV and radio companies."


The Security Council said reports of the unrest on the Russian NTV channel were "intentionally false."


"There was nothing of the kind on the streets on Minsk," the statement said. "NTV actions directly contradict international law and force the Belarussian authorities to take adeqaute steps to stop misinformation. An end to the transmission of NTV programs on Belarus territory may be such a measure."


NTV reacted by airing footage of the riots repeatedly, with Yevgeny Kiselyov, anchor of the "Itogi" news show, warning Lukashenko "not to repeat the mistakes" of the dying Soviet regime.


International reaction to the deepening crisis was almost uniformly critical of Lukashenko. Neighboring Poland's parliament expressed "serious concern," while Karsten Voigt, president of the North Atlantic Assembly, which represents parliamentarians from 40 European and North American countries, called Lukashenko's behavior "illegal, non-democratic and sometimes even crazy."