Belarus: Crackdown and currency crisis

May 17, 2011 at 9:13 AM
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MINSK, Belarus, May 17 (UPI) -- The economic crisis in Belarus deepened as the government of President Alexander Lukashenko continued to send regime critics to prison.

The Belarusian ruble is in a free-fall. On Monday, it plunged to 6,300 rubles per U.S. dollar on the interbank market after having traded at around 5,000 rubles last week. The ongoing currency crisis undermines the country's ability to import foreign goods and has caused Belarusians to hoard basic food stuffs.

The crisis in Belarus coincides with a crackdown on political opposition members.

Several prominent opposition figures are in prison awaiting trial for their involvement in mass anti-regime protests on Election Day last December. The demonstrations meant to protest the official results, which handed Lukashenko, often branded "Europe's last dictator," 80 percent of the vote and a fourth consecutive term in office.

Belarusian security forces arrested hundreds of regime critics, including several presidential candidates, after the demonstrations. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions against the Belarusian regime, including a travel ban Lukashenko and 150 of his associates.

Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister and pro-democracy activist who ran against Lukashenko, was sentenced to five years in prison for organizing mass unrest.

Sannikov's wife Irina Khalip, a journalist, on Monday was given a two-year suspended sentence for her involvement in the demonstrations.

"I'm very proud of my husband," Khalip said after she heard the sentence. "I consider him a national hero."

Four other presidential candidates -- Nikolai Statkevich, Dmitry Uss, Vladimir Neklyayev and Vitaly Rymashevsky -- remain in prison and await trial for organizing mass unrest or lesser charges linked to the protests.

Leaders in the United States, Russia and Europe condemned the trials and the rulings as politically motivated.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert last week said the dissidents in Belarus were "people that courageously stood up for freedom of opinion and for democracy."

As long as they're imprisoned, "there will be no normalization in the relations between Germany and Belarus," Seibert added.

The crackdown on regime critics had destroyed hopes of a rapprochement between Belarus and the West that had been simmering before the December elections.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, loosened his grip in recent months to please Western leaders and observers had lauded him for freeing up the election process. In an unprecedented move, the state-owned television aired a discussion among the opposition candidates.

The elections ended questionably, however, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denouncing the election as flawed. The post-election crackdown effectively ended the West's relation with Belarus.

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