Lawmakers in the European Parliament strongly condemned today the massive crackdown launched by riot police on protesters trying to hold a banned march in Belarus. Almost a thousand people were arrested and many of them were beaten by police and needed medical attention over the weekend.
ALDE MEP, Petras Auštrevičius (liberal, Lithuania) said this is the worst assault by the authorities in Belarus against unarmed civilians, in the last 7 years:
“The repression of protesters in Belarus is unprecedented in scale since 2010. Sadly, they come exactly one year after the EU Council’s decision to enter into a so-called re-engagement policy with Minsk. President Lukashenko showed reciprocity by rigging parliamentary elections in September 2016, by keeping the death penalty in force and by clamping down on peaceful protesters in the streets of Minsk and across the country. I am convinced that the EU’s stance towards Lukashenko’s regime has been wrong and should be put on a firmer values – based foundation. The EU should suspend its financial assistance going directly to Lukashenko’s government and instead support those who strive for a European and democratic Belarus. All those responsible for violent acts must be put on the sanctions list.”
Belarus authorities detained hundreds of people on Saturday during an attempt to hold a street protest in the capital Minsk, amid rising public anger over falling living standards and an unpopular tax on the unemployed.
People took the streets in reaction to a new labour law that forces citizens to pay the government the equivalent of 240 EUR if they work less than six months in a year, or if they fail to register with state labour exchanges.
Lukashenko has suspended the tax in light of the backlash but the protests have continued.
Protesters shouting slogans and waving signs were taken away, many of them beaten, along with passersby and at least 10 journalists.
Police earlier also raided the offices of Vesna-96, an opposition group, and detained about 60 activists, although they were later released, Vesna-96 said.
Saturday’s demonstration is the latest in a wave of protests since February that pose the biggest challenge in years to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state with an iron fist for nearly a quarter of a century.
Belarus has been in recession for the past two years, suffering the knock-on effects of an economic downturn in Russia and a sharp fall in oil prices. The hardship has brought even former Lukashenko supporters onto the streets.
Saturday’s crackdown was the culmination of the Belarussian authorities hardening their position on the protests.
Lukashenko earlier this week accused a “fifth column” of plotting to overthrow him with the help of foreign-backed fighters. On Friday he built on this theme, saying “someone wants to blow up the situation, and they use our scumbags”.
It is unclear as yet how the crackdown on the protests will affect relations with Belarus’s neighbors. Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West against the backdrop of cooling relations with ex-Soviet master Russia.
He has pardoned several political prisoners, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions against a country once described by the United States as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.