In Belarus Town, People Tasted a Bite of Freedom. It Lasted 2 Days.
In Belarus Town, People Tasted a Bite of Freedom. It Lasted 2 Days.
GRODNO, Belarus — For two days this week, a city on the western edge of authoritarian Belarus tasted freedom.
In Grodno, workers at the state-owned fertilizer factory went on strike, the ruling regime’s opponents rallied openly in the central square and the local police department did the unthinkable: It apologized for last week’s violence against protesters.
But then the fear came back.
This return was evident on Thursday, when a retired kindergarten teacher, Natalia P. Antonova, pleaded with fertilizer factory workers to join the protests and resume their strike. But just about all of them filed by quietly, ignoring her.
And it could be seen that evening, when a crowd of about 1,000 gathered in the city’s central square, once again calling on Mr. Lukashenko to resign. But then a police car drove up to direct the protesters to disperse.
“People are being pressured at work, salaries are dismal and we all have loans,” said one of the protesters, Olga A. Lebedevich, 45, a decorator. “Everybody is afraid to lose their paychecks, so they live in fear.”
Across this former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko seems to have regained the momentum in his brutal effort to cling to power after claiming victory in an election on Aug. 9 whose results were widely seen as falsified.
The protests that followed were met with police beatings, rubber bullets and mass detentions. But this heavy-handed response provoked a backlash that only drove more Belarusians streaming into the streets,
Now, Mr. Lukashenko appears to have adopted a more deft approach to neutralizing the public anger against him.
His administration has organized rallies in his support, while Mr. Lukashenko barnstormed the former Soviet republic’s state-owned enterprises that make up his political base. He warned that striking state company employees would lose their jobs, and after state television workers went on strike, Mr. Lukashenko said he could replace them with journalists from Russia.
And on Friday, Mr. Lukashenko sent a not-so-subtle signal that the recent days’ reprieve from the violent repression of the protests is not likely to last.
“This is my problem to solve, and we are solving it,” Mr. Lukashenko said of the protests after meeting with riot police officers, according to the Belarusian state news agency, Belta. “Believe me, in the coming days we’ll solve it.”
The turning tide could be felt in Grodno, a city of 370,000 in western Belarus that had emerged as a focal point of anti-Lukashenko sentiment.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of city residents flooded the streets waving the red and white flags that have become associated with the opposition. In Grodno and across the country, the long-simmering frustration with economic stagnation and stifled freedoms under Mr. Lukashenko burst into the open after images of vicious police beatings of protesters coursed through social media.
On Tuesday, local officials in Grodno went further than their counterparts in any other Belarusian city in trying to defuse the protests by offering concessions. The local police apologized for using excessive force, and most protesters were released from jail. City Hall even promised to provide sound equipment for future opposition rallies and said that the television station it owned, Grodno Plus, would be allowed to cover the protests fairly.
“Now our policy is that we cover everything neutrally,” said Yana A. Melnichenko, a 25-year-old Grodno Plus correspondent, adding that eight of her friends had been detained by the police. “Of course I am now proud of my television station, but I am also proud of my nation. We have never been as united as we are now.”
But by Thursday, City Hall already seemed to be reneging on its promises. It was no longer providing loudspeakers for rallies. And employees of Grodno Azot — a fertilizer maker that is one of the country’s biggest state-owned companies — said they were being pressured by management to refrain from strikes. Armed men, they said, had appeared at a factory checkpoint in a show of force.
The Grodno Azot employees describing the situation declined to give their names. A security officer standing nearby filmed the scene with a small hand-held camera.
“Even two days ago, the situation was different,” said Ms. Antonova, 61, the retired kindergarten teacher who was entreating the workers heading into the fertilizer plant to stop and join the protesters. “They decided to throw us a few bones, to make us chew them and calm down.”
Mr. Lukashenko this week singled out Grodno as being the most unreliable place in the country, using the protests there to underpin his claim that the movement against him was engineered by the West. People have started to raise Polish flags in Grodno, Mr. Lukashenko told his regional governors, and warned that foreign powers “want to destabilize the situation in Grodno even more than they do in Minsk.”
In Grodno, Bazhena M. Pochebyt said that she saw two Polish flags at one rally. Formerly a Polish town at various times in the past and very close to the border, Grodno has a sizable Polish population and has monuments of Polish writers in the city center.
“Many people here are more informed because they have relatives abroad, and we have a way to see how people can protest peacefully,” said Ms. Pochebyt, who came to the city’s main Orthodox cathedral on Thursday to commemorate victims of police brutality.
Whether or not fear keeps most protesters off the streets this weekend, and prevents factory workers from walking off the job, could prove decisive for Mr. Lukashenko’s fate. Some estimates put last Sunday’s crowds in Minsk, the capital, calling for the president’s departure at more than 200,000 — the biggest protests in the country’s post-Soviet history.
Sergei S. Demenko, a roofer with a state-run construction company in Grodno, said that many of his colleagues were only doing the minimum amount of work in a form of protest, but that the pressure against them was getting stronger.
Standing in front of a police car announcing that protesters in the central square Thursday evening must disperse, Mr. Demenko was fuming. He said that many of his friends had gone to work in neighboring Poland, earning more money there and enjoying a freer life. Despite working all the time, he still lived in a dormitory.
“I am paying taxes, I have rights — why can I not come out to express my opinion?” asked Mr. Demenko, 35, adding that after a few days without arrests, some of his most active colleagues had been detained the previous night. “Why is it that they have the law applied to us regular folks, but they violate it themselves all the time?”