More than a hundred people were detained in Belarus yesterday as the country's authorities again cracked down on the weekly "clapping protests" held by opponents of the authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko.
In Minsk alone, crowds of around 1,000 took to the streets as protests were held in cities across the country, largely organised through social network sites. Without banners or slogans, they walked quietly through the city centres, clapping their hands. In Minsk, authorities had closed off the main square and ordered an impromptu concert, with a mini-skirted girl-band playing ear-splitting pop music to an assembled crowd of teenagers waving Belarusian flags. But the protesters instead made their way along an adjacent street, clapping.
After a few minutes, dozens of plain-clothed thugs appeared and began assaulting random participants. People were plucked from the crowd indiscriminately and manhandled into waiting buses. The streets were crawling with security officers, most of whom were young skinheads wearing tracksuits and earpieces. Through the tinted windows of the buses, they could be seen punching those who had been arrested.
Known as the "last dictator in Europe", Mr Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994, running the economy on neo-Soviet lines and stifling all political dissent. He won another term in office last December in elections which international observers say were rigged. After the protests which followed, hundreds of people were arrested, including most of the people who stood against him. The most realistic challenger, Andrei Sannikov, has been given a five-year jail sentence.
Mr Lukashenko does enjoy popularity among some of the country's population, but a recent economic downturn has boosted discontent. He has has long touted economic and political stability as his main achievement, but a bomb blast in the Minsk metro in April, and the worsening economic situation is eroding his support.
Prices for many staple items have doubled, leading to panic-buying and a run on exchange booths by locals desperate to exchange their Belarusian roubles for dollars or euros. Russia cut electricity to Belarus yesterday, citing unpaid debts. By the evening, agreement had been reached to restart electricity today.
Mr Lukashenko has hit out at ministers, foreign countries and the opposition, blaming everyone except himself for the crisis. He has threatened to close the borders to all imports if the situation continues to worsen, and accused people of being too lazy to work hard. Nikolai Snopkov, the Belarusian economy minister, snapped at a journalist who asked him whether he felt responsibility for the economic hardship. "I guess I should apologise for not having shot myself already?" the minister said.
Young people sick of Mr Lukashenko's regime have taken to social networks to plan their actions, because most opposition politicians are in jail or exile. One group on vkontakte, a Russian-language version of Facebook, has amassed 200,000 members. The group has promised to march every Wednesday until Mr Lukashenko steps down, saying they expect more and more people to join in each week. Major protests are also planned for Sunday, which is Belarusian Independence Day.
The unrepentant dictator
* Alexander Lukashenko, described by the Bush administration as the "last dictator in Europe", has revelled in the epithet. "An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it," he said in 2003. This year, he complained that Belarus was suffering from "too much democracy". Born in a Belarusian village in 1954, Mr Lukashenko ran a collective farm in the 1980s, before entering politics. In 1994, he became President of Belarus, which gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. With his trademark moustache and folksy aphorisms, he is often seen as a figure of fun, but his methods have at times been brutal, with mass arrests and suspicious deaths plaguing the opposition. He often appears with his six-year-old son Nikolai. Mr Lukashenko has taken the child to meetings with heads of state, dressed him in full military regalia, and hinted that he wants him to take over from him.