MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday he would not tolerate further protests, which have spread in the former Soviet republic as a financial crisis worsens.
Running out of foreign currency, Belarus last month devalued its rouble by 36 percent, triggering price hikes and panic on the consumer market.
Angered by runaway inflation, hundreds of Belarussians have gathered for weekly rallies in cities this month, coordinating timing and locations through social networking websites.
In most cases, protesters -- wary of violent crackdowns on earlier overt demonstrations -- made no vocal calls against Lukashenko and carried no banners, choosing instead to applaud in unison or drive slowly in their cars and honk their horns.
In a speech ahead of Belarus' Independence Day on July 3, Lukashenko said the protests were not a reaction to economic hardship but an attempt to destabilize the nation.
"These are not poor people," he said. "So what do they want? (They want) chaos and outrage in the country."
"We cannot allow this. The state has resources and powers to put them in their place... As soon as you allow chaos and disorder, even just a little bit... you have problems that lead to bloodshed."
WAGE RISE TURNED SOUR
On Thursday, Belarussian courts sentenced dozens of protesters to between 6 and 15 days' detention and fines of $20 to $175 after they took part in protests the day before.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has retained a Soviet-style leadership with a state-dominated economy, a generous welfare system and few political freedoms.
Trying to boost his popularity in the run-up to elections last December, his government raised public sector wages by 40 percent and stimulated the economy with cheap loans.
Lukashenko was re-elected for a fourth term but the West condemned alleged vote-rigging as well as his harsh response to a post-election protest, initiating diplomatic and economic sanctions against Minsk.
At the same time, a boost in spending led to a jump in imports and a growing current account deficit.
The government tried to shore up the rouble for a few months and pledged not to allow any devaluation but gave up in May as its foreign currency reserves evaporated.
The devaluation has wiped out last year's wage increases and disillusioned some Belarussians.
However, the political opposition is in disarray after a police crackdown and mass arrests following a protest rally on December 19 against Lukashenko's re-election. Several opposition candidates who stood against Lukashenko have since been jailed.
On Friday, Lukashenko said he would stick to his policies.
"We will continue implementing the Belarussian model which has proved its sustainability over the last 15 years," he said.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov)