World News

Belarus outlaws silent rallies over soaring prices

KIEV (Reuters) - Belarus’ parliament on Wednesday outlawed “silent” protests which have swept across the former Soviet republic in the last few months as it struggles to overcome a financial crisis.

People applaud as they participate in a peaceful protest in Minsk, September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Belarus, trying to curb a large current account deficit, devalued its rouble by 36 percent in May, pushing consumer prices up, prompting thousands of cash-strapped Belarussian to protest.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, described such rallies as part of a plot to overthrow his government. Police have routinely dispersed such protests and arrested hundreds of participants.

Taking part in unsanctioned protests is illegal in Belarus.

Hundreds of those detained at earlier protests have been fined or detained for up to two weeks.

Amendments to the law approved on Wednesday classify any “mass presence of people in a public place agreed beforehand ... aimed at performing actions agreed beforehand or inaction ... to express political views or protest,” as picketing which requires official approval.

The protests, usually coordinated through social networking websites, took place across the nation of 10 million at least once a week for most of the summer.

Participants would gather in agreed locations without any banners and just stand silently or clap in unison. By September, however, the protests mostly died out.

Belarus is seeking a loan of up to $8 billion (5 billion pounds) from the International Monetary Fund to overcome the crisis which was largely triggered generous government spending in the run-up to the December 2010 presidential elections.

The West criticised the vote, in which Lukashenko secured a fourth term in office, as fraudulent and introduced sanctions against Lukashenko’s government, a move which could make it harder for him to secure much-needed bailout loans.

Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Marwa Awad