More Protests In Minsk Against Closer Integration Between Belarus, Russia

MINSK — People are gathering again in Minsk on December 21 to protest plans on greater integration between Belarus and Russia.

The demonstration comes after at least some 1,500 people gathered in the Belarusian capital on December 20 as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met in St. Petersburg to negotiate a series of “road maps” to bind the two countries more closely.

The December 20 crowd was the largest of three such demonstrations in Minsk this month, despite warnings from police, the detention of activists, and the authorities’ refusal to sanction the demonstrations.

But police did not break up the rally nor did they make arrests during the event on December 20.

The demonstrators chanted “Independence!” and “Long Live Belarus!”

The demonstrators marched from October Square to Independence Square, where they rallied, holding red-striped white banners — the banned flag of the first independent Belarusian republic — as well as European Union flags and posters with messages against integration with neighboring Russia.

The demonstrators chanted “Independence!” and “Long Live Belarus!”

In St. Petersburg, Lukashenka and Putin failed to reach agreement on three of the 31 “road maps,” with gas, oil, and tax issues remaining the thorniest.

The latest talks came after the two leaders failed to reach an agreement in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on December 7.

They had hoped to sign a deal to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the 1999 union treaty that is the basis of the current talks.

The Union Treaty has remained largely on paper. But the two countries are very close allies and their common border is an open one under a customs union arrangement.

Minsk is reliant on Russia for cheap oil and on roughly $5 billion worth of yearly subsidies for its outmoded Soviet-era economy that is mostly state-run, barring its flourishing information-technology industry.

Several hundred people protested in Minsk on December 7-8 against the closer integration plans.

Fears have risen in Belarus about its own territorial integrity since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and began supporting separatist formations in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Earlier this week, several leading opposition activists were sent to up to 15 days in jail for taking part in the December 7-8 march and rallies, which their supporters say was meant to prevent them from attending the December 20 rallies.

The demonstrations come a month after no opposition figures were elected to the rubber-stamp lower house of the Belarusian parliament.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitors observed the November 17 balloting in Belarus, said the election failed to meet democratic standards.

Sergei Lebedev, the head of a monitoring mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russia-led grouping of several former Soviet republics, said the vote had been “free, democratic, and in line with the constitution of the country.”

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