The Belarusan capital is striking for its absence of litter, a testament to the harsh punishments that await violators and the orange-vested cleaning crews that prowl the sidewalks around the clock.
But in recent weeks the authoritarian government here has been at a loss to stop a growing number of young activists from filling the streets to protest the country’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the ruthless leader they say is responsible.
With opposition figures in prison or exile, they have taken a page from the Arab Spring playbook, using social networking sites to circumvent rules that outlaw public gatherings in what has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.
For the fifth week in a row, several thousand met in Minsk’s October Square on Wednesday to clap hands in a gesture of solidarity against Alexander Lukashenko, the former collective farm manager who has sternly ruled the country for the past 17 years.
This time, authorities were waiting for them. In downtown Minsk, dozens of protesters were arrested by police with help from plainclothes thugs. Witnesses said they cornered small groups of people, punching and kicking them on the ground before packing them into paddy wagons. Smaller protests were reported in 10 towns and cities outside the capital.
“It’s become a little scary, but we are not going to walk away from this. Enough of Lukashenko!” said Vitaly, 22, an accountant who has been taking part in the rallies and did not want his last name used out of fear for his safety.
The latest crackdown follows unrest on Sunday that disrupted celebrations marking Independence Day here. Police deployed tear gas and batons as they arrested nearly 400 people around the country, human rights groups said.
Earlier in the day, Lukashenko — dressed in olive drab military attire — gave a speech in which he warned his countrymen against harboring dreams of “color revolutions” that successfully toppled governments in other ex-Soviet states. “They want to put us on our knees and reduce our independence to zero,” he boomed. “This will not happen!”
The president went on to blame shadowy forces operating in foreign capitals for the troubles. His drama was not without some justification.
After the crackdown on protesters following December’s sham election, Viachaslau Dziyanau, a 24-year-old democracy activist and campaign worker for a rival candidate, fled to Russia, Lithuania, and finally Krakow, Poland, to focus on a protest group he founded on the popular Russian social networking site vkontaktye.
It was the ripe moment. Buoyed by the support of restless Belarusans in their 20s and 30s, the group quickly evolved into the so-called “Revolution Through Social Networks” movement, which now has than 215,000 virtual members despite ongoing government efforts to shut it down.
In a June 23 interview with Ekho Moskvy, a respected Moscow-based radio station, he asserted that Lukashenko’s government is “afraid of the [non-violent] dynamics” of the protests and the elusiveness of its organizers, whose calls for flash-mob clapping rallies every Wednesday at 7 p.m. have been heeded by more and more people across the country.
“The main difference between our initiative and what happened in Arab countries is that in Arab countries the Internet was only an instrument for action,” he said, referring to social media-driven uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. “In Belarus, the Internet is the source.”
Although there may be some truth to his claims, not everyone in Belarus is buying the revolutionary hype just yet.
For all his detractors, Lukashenko, known to his supporters as “batka” (father), has built a vast security apparatus and enjoys significant backing among the working classes who have put stability ahead of social freedoms. Until they join forces with the youth and external pressure from the United States and European Union is ramped up, Valery Dranchuk, a prominent activist, believes the “state machine” will prevail.
The irony is that Lukashenko’s reckless economics are what exacerbated the current crisis. In the run-up to the vote, he kept his promise to give public-sector workers a salary hike by printing more money.
This resulted in runaway inflation that has cut the value of pensions, dried up imports and led to a shortage of basic goods. According to a May survey by the independent Institute of Sociology, Economy and Political Studies in Minsk, more than half of Belarusans said they could “not feed” or could “barely feed” their families.
Last month, angry motorists assembled in Minsk to demand lower gas prices. The president agreed the next day, only to be confronted by fresh protests over new travel rules meant to limit smugglers hustling subsidized gas and cigarettes across the border.
To reduce the near-term strain, Lukashenko might opt to sell valuable state-assets to Russia, on whom he has long depended on for cheap oil. Yet that risks giving an even greater slice of its economy to an increasingly fickle ally that has upped the cost of its support, going so far as cut off electricity supplies for four-days over unpaid bills.
Meanwhile, a massive loan from the International Monetary Fund would require financial reforms that could weaken the government’s grip.
“There’s no question the government is caught between a rock and hard place right now,” said Sergei Chaley, an independent economist in Minsk.
He predicts that as the tense summer grinds on and the rising cost of food and fuel stir anxieties as the cold weather nears, the younger generations might not be alone in the street.
Rusia Shukiurova, 31, a neo-folk musician, is less uncertain. “The roots of the system are so deep, I fear that only through revolution, with spilled blood, with something fast and powerful, can things be changed for good,” she said.
“This country is made of fear,” added the sole interviewee willing to use her whole name.