Belarus has defended the arrests of hundreds of people who were taking part in rare protests on Saturday.
About 400 people were arrested on Saturday while participating in an unsanctioned protest against the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has stifled dissent and independent media during his 23 years in power.
More people were arrested on Sunday in further demonstrations in the capital, Minsk, and other cities.
Belarus tolerates little dissent but has recently been seeking to improve ties with the West and reduce its dependency on Russia.
The human rights organization Vesna said about 30 people were arrested on Sunday. They were among about 100 people who tried to assemble on Minsk’s central square.
Before police seized her on Sunday, demonstrator Elena Gonchar said: “Belarus has been turned into a prison. What difference does it make where you sit, in a cell or at home.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is caught in the crossfire of a much larger battle. He’d like closer ties with the European Union (EU) and weaker ones with Russia, but the drift appears to be drawing popular protests driven by growing dissatisfaction with his repressive policies and failed management of the economy.
Lukashenko, whom Condoleezza Rice had once short-sightedly called Europe’s last dictator, has always had more trouble than, say, Ukrainian leaders in trying to play Russia and Europe against each other. His regime was dependent on Russia for cheap natural gas and other indirect subsidies, goodies came at the cost of hewing close to the Kremlin’s course.
But Lukashenko was mostly fine with the arrangement, sharing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic instincts and tendency to see political opposition as enemies to be suppressed. He also knew Belarus’s state-dominated economic model wouldn’t survive broader exposure to Europe.
Then Russia annexed Crimea in March, 2014, which sparked sanctions from the EU and the United States. Lukashenko refused to back Putin’s move, fearing his small country would be next in line. When Moscow tried to punish the EU with counter-sanctions, Belarus was hardly in lockstep, happily serving as a fake country of origin for many European products. Last year, Belarus failed to agree with Russia on the price of gas and paid only half of what the Russian state supplier, Gazprom, demanded, accumulating more than $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) in debt — about six weeks’ economic output.
In January, Lukashenko signed a decree allowing the citizens of 80 countries, including Europeans and US citizens, to enter Belarus without visas for five days. This was an attempt to raise tourist revenue in a shrinking economy, but the Kremlin responded by putting out a terse statement and setting up border checkpoints.
Belarusians have demonstrated since early February against the imposition of a tax equivalent to £200 on Belarusians who have been unemployed for more than six months and who have not sought work at government job centres. The campaign has been run under the slogan, “We are not parasites,” a reference to President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s 2015 introduction of the tax to fight “social parasitism”.