Some 1,000 small vendors demonstrate in central Minsk

About a thousand non-food stallholders staged an unsanctioned protest in downtown Minsk on Monday to demand that Alyaksandr Lukashenka reverse his edict, which they say is impossible to comply with.

About a thousand non-food stallholders staged an unsanctioned protest in downtown Minsk on Monday to demand that Alyaksandr Lukashenka reverse his edict, which they say is impossible to comply with.

After gathering in Kastrychnitskaya Square, the protesters displayed signs that accused the government of leaving small vendors without work.

There was a heavy presence of police officers at the scene but they did not interfere. Not a single government official turned out to speak to the crowd.

The demonstration was joined by opposition politicians Mikalay Statkevich, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew and Anatol Lyabedzka, as well as by small vendor and opposition activist Ales Makayew.

According to Dzmitry Kuchuk of the Belarusian Party of the Greens, Mr. Lukashenka's Edict No. 222 has paralyzed the business of traders who used to import eco-friendly goods from Russia. It is important that all businesspeople display solidarity with stallholders, he stressed.

Ales Talstyka, an activist of the Movement for Freedom and a former small vendor, said that he had taken offense at Mr. Lukashenka's remarks likening non-food stallholders to criminals.

The chairperson of a Slutsk-based market's stallholder council, who gave only her first name, Safiya, called on small vendors to gather in the square every Monday until their demands were heard by authorities. It is important to make Belarus' leadership realize that the edict is «ruinous to the country's citizens,» she stressed. The woman said that Iryna Yaskevich, a prominent small business leader in Vitsyebsk who was not in attendance, had been warned by plainclothesmen the day before that she would be jailed if she took part.

In an emotional speech, Mr. Nyaklyayew said that authorities were stifling stallholders because they were «free people.» According to the former presidential candidate, the government is wary of a middle class that could become the basis of democracy in Belarus. Referring to the European Union's planned decision to lift its sanctions on Belarusian government officials, Mr. Nyaklyayew called for adopting a statement urging the EU to change its mind. «Today the Belarusian regime is removing the skin from the people and the EU wants to lift the sanctions on it. This is unfair,» he stressed.

Addressing the crowd, Mr. Makayew read out a petition that was to be sent to the Presidential Administration after the demonstration. It included demands that the controversial edict be immediately abolished and that Mr. Lukashenka hold urgent talks with non-food stallholders.

«If the government doesn't accept our demands we will have to tell the Belarusian people that we are ruled not by a government but by a gang. And our call to the people will be as follows, 'Off with the gang, power to the people!» he said.

Mr. Lyabedzka, who leads the United Civic Party, said that the problems of non-food stallholders concerned all other people as well, while Mr. Statkevich accused Mr. Lukashenka of clinging to power illegally. «The country has been seized by a gang, servants of one person who wants to remain in power for ever,» he said.

«Only by taking back power we will be able to live normally,» said Mr. Statkevich. «If power is in people's hands Belarus will become a successful country.»

The crowd agreed that the next demonstration should take place at the same venue next Monday.

Commenting on the fact that police officers did not break up the demonstration or make arrests, Mr. Makayew suggested that Mr. Lukashenka would use it in his talks with Western politicians. «Today the regime is receiving loans from both the West and the East and he will be able to use today's event to claim that there's democracy in Belarus,» he said.

Many stallholders at markets and shopping malls across Belarus have been keeping their stalls closed since January 1 because they are afraid that they will face severe penalties for failure to comply with Edict No. 222, which banned retailers from selling apparel, footwear, toys, toiletries and other consumer goods without accompanying documents confirming their compliance with safety requirements.

Since the start of the year, those who want to sell imported goods, which mainly come from Russia, must present proof of origin, something that Russian wholesalers generally do not provide.

The government should ignore market vendors` resentment and move ahead with plans to secure an even playing field for all retailers in Belarus, Mr. Lukashenka told Trade Minister Uladzimir Kaltovich on Tuesday.

The Belarusian leader indicated that he would not agree to soften the new rules established by his edicts.