Belarus jails 600 to stop 'senseless democracy'

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The Independent Online

Belarus jailed more than 600 opposition activists yesterday, ignoring Western criticism of a police crackdown on protesters after the contested re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The activists were imprisoned for between five and 15 days, the Interior Ministry said.

Sunday night's protests were one of the strongest street challenges in years to Mr Lukashenko's hardline rule. Opposition leaders, including at least five candidates in the election, could receive up to 15 years in prison if convicted of inciting violence.

Mr Lukashenko, officially re-elected to a fourth term in office with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, has vowed to thwart any attempt at "revolution" and said there would be no more "senseless democracy" in the former Soviet republic.

The 56-year-old former state farm director has ruled Belarus, which forms a buffer between Russia and Nato countries, since 1994. His uncompromising tone suggests little immediate future for warmer relations with the European Union, which has been weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million people on its eastern flank, and possibly provide financial aid.

Instead, Western criticism could push Mr Lukashenko closer to Russia. Minsk and Moscow recently patched up differences that had led Russia to cut back the energy subsidies that underpin Belarus's Soviet-style command economy and its generous social payouts. "Lukashenko understands that, in order to keep the support of the population, he must find ways to secure capital inflows," Eurasia Group said in a note. "With the Western option now closed off, Minsk will be forced to look to Russia and China."

Opposition parties said they would launch a "campaign of solidarity" for those people held by police, starting with a picket at the jail later in the day. "The dictatorship has united the opposition," said Vyacheslav Sivchik, leader of the Together movement.

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