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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anti-Union Protest Lights Up Minsk

MINSK, Belarus -- Several hundred people braved the bitter cold Wednesday evening to protest the authoritarian rule of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and the pending unification with Russia.

The participants, who spanned several generations, lined Minsk's main drag, Prospekt Skoriny, for several blocks. Holding candles, which they shielded from a biting wind, they stood quietly in temperatures of minus 11 degree Celsius for an hour. No arrests were immediately reported.

The peaceful, unsanctioned protest was a sharp contrast to the last opposition demonstration in October, when protesters clashed violently with police.

A rival rally was held Wednesday at the Minsk concert hall, where mainly elderly backers of Lukashenko hailed the union treaty, Reuters reported.

The demonstration fell on the third anniversary of the referendum by which Lukashenko changed the Constitution to extend his term and two days before Lukashenko and President Boris Yeltsin are to sign a major union treaty in a Kremlin ceremony.

It also came less than a week after the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul. The opposition was still smarting from a warm impromptu exchange between Lukashenko and U.S. President Bill Clinton. Some opposition leaders were disappointed by the relatively weak OSCE statement regarding Belarus.

While Belarus and Russia have been discussing union for years, the latest treaty seems to be the most far reaching and includes a time line of when the elements will be put into place.

"This treaty is much more firm and obligating for the states," said Yury Drakokhrust, head analyst of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research in Minsk.

The union is to be governed by a Higher Council made up of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of parliaments, but only the presidents have a vote. Drakokhrust pointed out that the Higher Council can issue decrees on anything that doesn't violate the countries' separate constitutions.

Presumably, the council would be free to violate existing legislation with its decrees, as Lukashenko routinely does.

In Russia, some fear the treaty could allow Lukashenko to run for president of the new state or give Yeltsin a pretext to stay in office after his term expires next summer.

But in general the union is not taken seriously. Most Moscow observers see it as a popular vote-getting measure and say, of politicians, only Lukashenko really wants to see it put into force.

But Vincuk Viacorka, chairman of the opposition Belarussian Popular Front, said the governments were using a psychological tactic of "crying wolf" with previous treaties that amounted to nothing in practice so that people would not notice when the real thing hit them.

Given Lukashenko's poor human rights record, it would seem that Russians would have the most to lose from a union that would give the Belarussian leader more clout in Moscow.

But the Belarussian opposition sees Lukashenko as a puppet of Russian imperialism.

"The Russians have this image of thick-headed Belarussians," said Zmitser Bandarenka, coordinator of the pro-democracy group Charter '97. "'They love us,' they think. Well, no."

Valentin Gefter, director of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute, said he was concerned that the union issue would foster rabid nationalism and Russophobia in Belarus. But Viacorka emphasized that there was no ethnic chauvinism in his movement, adding that many Popular Front leaders are not ethnically Belarussian.

At least one young demonstrator backed up his claim.

"I don't want Lukashenko to sell Belarus to Russia," said Ruslan, an ethnic Tatar. "I'm not Belarussian but I sympathize."

But the union treaty is only one of many issues that have turned people against the current regime in Belarus.

"I came [to the demonstration] because the present life doesn't suit me. Prices are rising, unemployment, the death rate has gone up. My child died this year. Cancer," said Alla Ananko, 42, as she started to cry.

Her reasons for opposing the union were less about national pride and more about her country's well-being. "Before I was pretty much for it, but now I am categorically against it. Our death rate is already higher than our birth rate. Russia is fighting a war, you know. They are going to send our children to war."

According to Drako, such a viewpoint is typical, with support for the union fluctuating depending on the political situation in Russia.

During the conflict in Yugoslavia when Russia was firmly pitted against the West, more Belarussians were inclined to support the union, he said.

The organizers of Wednesday's protest, who represented a coalition of opposition groups, had originally applied for permission to hold the event, but the authorities would only allow them to hold it far from the center at Bangalor Square - the spot opposition activists have taken to calling the "reservation" because of the government's habit of trying to confine protesters there.

They estimated that 1,500 people attended, a good showing for the embattled opposition, which has no access to the dominant state-controlled media.

The activists say this "information blockade" is what keeps the charismatic Lukashenko's popularity so high.

Drakokhrust said his rating has never fallen below 40 percent, while that of the strongest opposition figures has never exceeded 5 percent.

Also Wednesday, a Minsk court began hearing the case against Ales Pushkin, an artist who last summer dumped a wheelbarrow full of manure in front of Lukashenko's residence and put a pitchfork through a portrait of Lukashenko and into the dung.

Pushkin, 34, is charged with hooliganism and defacing state symbols and could face up to five years in prison.

"It was an artistic act, an image. Alas, this is Mr. Lukashenko's contribution to history - what was in the wheelbarrow," Pushkin said in an interview before the trial, which resumes Thursday.

Pushkin's case was one of several politically tinged cases scheduled to be heard this week.

Nikolai Khalezin, a Charter '97 member and deputy editor of Naviny, an independent paper recently shut down,

estimated that such cases, usually connected to demonstrations or underground publications, are heard about three times a week. The trials usually end in fines or a few nights in jail. He predicted the same would happen after Wednesday's protest, whose organizers were expected to be arrested.

"We'll have the next arrests, a new cycle of trials. It's a conveyor belt," he said.