Pro-Democracy Protesters Arrested on 100th Anniversary of Belarus Independence

The Belarus authorities sanctioned a "Freedom Day" concert in central Minsk but banned the opposition from marching

An estimated 70 pro-democracy demonstrators were arrested in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Sunday after a rally marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s ill-fated declaration of independence from Russia.

“The attempted demonstration in Minsk was meant to commemorate the Belarus’ 1918 proclamation of independence from Russia,” the Associated Press explains. “The Belarusian People’s Republic lasted until 1919. The anniversary is traditionally a day for opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian government to try to rally.”

Lukashenko’s regime has endured a good deal longer than the Belarusan People’s Republic, as he has been in power since 1994. A student demonstrator quoted by the AP declared, “It’s well visible that Lukashenko is the Soviet past and we are the future.”

For his part, Lukashenko growled that the long-ago republic was a “dismal page of our history,” but grudgingly allowed a commemoration on March 25 for the first time in his 24-year reign. His indulgence was partly motivated by pressure from the European Union, which warned him against repeating the mass arrests that put over 700 people behind bars last year.

Among those arrested was one of the most prominent opposition politicians in Belarus, Nikolai Statkevich. He never made it to the rally, as he was arrested en route and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

The government permitted celebrations but banned anything that could be interpreted as a protest march, which led to the dozens of arrests. Protesters brandished the red-and-white flag of the old republic as a symbol of defiance.

On Monday, the European Union called on Belarus to immediately release all imprisoned opposition activists, including Statkevich and another leader, former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu.

“Democratic principles and fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and of the media must be fully ensured in any democratic society,” said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

“Steps taken by Belarus to respect universal fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and human rights will remain vital in shaping the European Union’s future relationship with the country,” Kocijancic added in a little verbal warning shot to Lukashenko.