The unsettled autocrat leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, made it a 66th birthday to remember on Sunday with a show of force against protesters that tilted the country’s 20-day civil uprising to a new militaristic level.
It was the logical continuation of a week of tightening screws.
The immediate backdrop to what protesters were calling a march for peace and independence was anything but auspicious. Arrests of journalists, strike leaders, protesters, and protest leaders seemed calibrated to undermine the resolve of the people.
To some degree, the tactics worked. Amid explicit orders to stay away from central Minsk, and a very obvious police presence from early morning, the numbers of protesters were obviously down from last weekend’s demonstrations. Even so, perhaps 50,000 defied the warnings.
Arrests began even before the 2pm scheduled start, with authorities hitting hard and early in an operation of almost cartoonish menace.
First, police trucks pulled up alongside demonstrators as they headed towards Independence Square, the advertised gathering point for the protests.
As the doors of some of the trucks swung open and operatives began grabbing people, a handful of the vehicles performed a volte face, and drove at demonstrators from the other side of the road.
Isolated scuffles broke out between police and what appeared to be fleeing protesters. One demonstrator seemed to resist being detained – one of the very few instances when protesters have engaged on similar terms with the regime.
Within what felt like less than a minute, a new line of riot police came into view.
These units appeared to have been waiting for the moment from a position just off the square. This was the main entrance of the Omon, Mr Lukashenko’s loyal lieutenants, who have been closely associated with the extreme violence that took place between 9 and 12 August, and who are capable of sending Belarusians into panic mode by their very appearance.
The Omon officers arrived in Mad Max-style black jeeps, fronted by three-metre metal mesh shields. They pushed forward in two lines, with rifle-toting officers peeking out from above the mesh bumpers. They were followed by lines of riot shields, water cannon and police trucks.
The sense that they were some kind of advancing army was only heightened by the green-and-red flags they flew – a symbol of the Lukashenko regime.
Eventually, authorities cornered a few thousand protesters around the central intersection of Lenin Street and Independence Avenue.
They were kept there for nearly an hour, and separated into two groups. Some managed to break through the cordons, though some male protesters were detained. The vast majority of the 140 reported arrests took place in the first phase of the protest.
By 3.30pm, large crowds had assembled elsewhere and continued the march on its pre-planned route towards Mr Lukashenko’s residence two miles away. This second part of the march was much more peaceful in comparison, literally dampened by pouring rain.
As the crowds approached the barriers that had been erected outside the residence, some dropped off “presents” and placards they had prepared for the ruler’s birthday. They included slippers, an early symbol of the protest, along with a wreath and a coffin.
The most prominent of the placards left behind communicated a simple message. “We have truth, you have Omon,” it said.
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