Belarus threatens to use lethal force against protesters as pensioners march for freedom
The timing of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s latest attempt to crush protests against his illegitimate rule in Belarus could not have been more appropriate. While Belarusian First Deputy Interior Minister, Hennady Kazakevych, announced on 13 October that lethal weapons were to be used “where necessary” against violent protesters, the threat came on the second day of mass protests throughout the country by pensioners, peacefully marching with placards demanding change and “Freedom for our grandchildren”. While none was gunned down, OMON riot officers detained a few protesters, fired shots and sprayed pepper gas in the pensioners’ faces.
In his address, Kazakevych claimed that the protests had become “extremely radical” and that stones and bottles had been hurled at police on 11 October by protesters with knives. He asserted that the protests had become more organized and “extremely radical”, although the video footage shown as he was speaking did not particularly show this.
All reports from the regular Sunday March of Dignity in Minsk and other cities on 11 Octobers suggest that the violence came from the enforcement bodies, with a level of brutality similar to that seen on the first days after the ‘elections’ on 9 August. The Viasna Human Rights Centre reported that 600 people, including at least 26 journalists, had been detained and that the police had used stun grenades; rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters. It was after this brutality that EU foreign ministers finally agreed to impose sanctions against Lukashenka himself. 40 other officials are under sanctions (travel bans and the freezing of assets held abroad).
The first violent death of a peaceful protester was during the first hours after the Belarusian authorities claimed that Lukashenka had won the elections, and there have been a number of deaths since then. The authorities have not, however, ever admitted to shooting (or in other ways aiming) to kill, so the threat on 13 October is new and worrying.
It was the violence, the torture and the huge number of people imprisoned in horrific conditions that led first to women in white and with flowers marching or standing in protest, and now pensioners. There are horrific accounts of women also being subjected to torture, however pensioners have, for the moment, ‘only’ been roughly treated and / or detained.
The first march of pensioners was on 5 October through Minsk. The procession began on Independence Square with the demonstrators marching to the central interior ministry building where they chanted: “Fascism will not win”; “Put Karayev [the ‘interior minister’] on trial”; “Free the political prisoners” and “Freedom for our grandchildren”.
During Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity (or Euromaidan), a kind of joke did the rounds: “When somebody shouts OMON [the brutal riot police] in Russia, people run away. In Ukraine, when they shout ‘Berkut’, people come running”. It was certainly true that on crucial dates, Ukrainians reacted with solidarity in the face of Berkut savagery. Such acts of solidarity are being seen now in Belarus, not least from pensioners who reacted to the brutality on 11 October by demonstrating the following day in at least six Belarusian cities (Minsk; Brest; Gomel; Hrodno; Mogilev and Lida). Radio Svoboda’s Belarusian Service reports that people in apartment blocs along the way demonstrated their support.