Belarus KGB gets tough new powers as anger grows

AP News
Posted: Oct 13, 2011 3:01 PM
Belarus KGB gets tough new powers as anger grows

Belarus is clamping down on opposition groups and granting police sweeping new powers, including the right to forcefully disperse silent protests and break into offices and homes.

The measures, passed in a closed session of parliament and published Thursday on a government website, come as anger and dissent grown in the autocratic country of 10 million over an economic crisis in which the Belarusian ruble has lost one-third of its value since spring.

Under the new measures, political and civil-society groups are banned from receiving foreign assistance and from holding money in foreign banks. They also give police the authority to forcefully break up silent protests _ in which demonstrators do not shout slogans or display any banners _ that have become popular as police have taken a harsh line against other types of demonstrations.

The security police, which use the Soviet-era acronym KGB, are also now authorized to break into residences and offices.

"The changes significantly widen the powers of the special services, make them uncontrollable and for all practical purposes above the law," said Valentin Stefanovich, a representative of the Vesna human rights organization.

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, in office since 1994, has consistently suppressed opposition, cracked down on independent journalists and kept the country's broadcasters under tight state control.

Lukashenko was declared the overwhelming winner of an election last December that sparked a massive rally protesting alleged vote fraud. The rally was violently dispersed by riot police and seven of the nine candidates who opposed Lukashenko were arrested, along with some 700 other people. Two of the arrested candidates remain in prison, serving sentences of five to six years; another was released from prison this month.

The breakup of the rally, the arrests and the subsequent crackdown were all widely condemned by Western governments.

Lukashenko has kept much of Belarus' industry under state control, relying on cheap energy resources from Belarus' main sponsor and ally, Russia, to maintain a quasi-Soviet economy complete with a social safety net that helped boost his popularity among the working class and the elderly.

But the Russian subsidies have dwindled recently as Moscow has pushed for control over Belarus' most prized economic assets, such as oil refineries and chemical plants, in exchange for more loans.

As the economic deterioration drags on, discontent is growing.

"The authorities are terribly afraid of the possibility of unrest. They're making a bet on repression because no other instruments remain for them," said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.