Some 300 demonstrate in downtown Minsk in support of stallholders

About 300 people staged an unsanctioned demonstration in downtown Minsk on Monday afternoon to demand the abolition of tough new rules for non-food stallholders at markets and shopping centers.

About 300 people took part in an unsanctioned demonstration that was staged in downtown Minsk on Monday afternoon to demand the abolition of tough new rules for non-food stallholders at markets and shopping centers.

A number of prominent opposition figures took part in the protest in front of the Palace of the Republic in Kastrychnitskaya Square, including Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party; former presidential candidates Mikalay Statkevich and Uladzimir Nyaklyayew; Paval Sevyarynets, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party; and small business leader Ales Makayew.

Prior to the demonstration, Mr. Statkevich had called on people to gather in front of the office of the Presidential Administration. However, only about 10 people came there. The demonstrators left after being told that they would have to wait for two hours to have their petition registered. The group joined the crowd in Kastrychnitskaya Square.

Mr. Statkevich said that he had expected at least 50 people to heed his calls. On the positive side, the lack of arrests indicates that the Belarusians have an opportunity to stage street protests, he said.

Speaking at the rally near the Palace of the Republic, Mr. Lyabedzka invited stallholders to tell those present about their problems. Several policemen attempted to intervene in the event, but people started chanting «Shame!» and «Freedom!» formed a chain around the speakers and pushed the officers away.

Messrs. Makayew and Lyabedzka displayed signs demanding the abolition of controversial Edict No. 222 and a rule requiring stallholders should have receipts and invoices for their goods.

A majority of the demonstrators raised their hands when Mr. Makayew read out a petition calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakow, Economy Minister Uladzimir Zinowski and Tax Minister Syarhey Nalivayka and asked the crowd whether it supported the demand.

In his speech, Mr. Sevyarynets also urged vendors to demand the resignation of Mr. Kabyakow and other members of his government and to express no confidence in Alyaksandr Lukashenka. He invited people to come to a meeting of Belarusian Christian Democracy’s «enterprise salvation committee» in the Belarusian Popular Front’s office on February 25.

Mr. Lyabedzka read out a petition to the Presidential Administration and the Council of Ministers drawn up by small business owners in Vitseybsk. The petition warns that the implementation of Edict No. 222 will increase the unemployment rate and social tensions and also take a heavy toll on low-income people who bought clothing and footwear from vendors.

Ten snowplows deployed in the square prior to the event continually distracted the demonstrators with their noise, aimlessly drifting back and forth and forcing people closer to the entrance to the Palace of the Republic. A team of utility workers appeared at the scene and started shoveling mud, pretending that they were removing snow.

On February 15, about a thousand non-food stallholders staged an unsanctioned protest in Kastrychnitskaya Square to call for the abolition of tough new rules for small business owners.

Although there was a heavy police presence at the venue of the demonstration, policemen did not intervene in the event or make arrests.

Thousands of vendors 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.

Earlier this month, Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Trade Minister Uladzimir Kaltovich that 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 indicated that he would not agree to soften the new rules established by his edicts.