- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

MINSK, BELARUS — Belarusian police violently dispersed a peaceful rally Wednesday by thousands of people protesting the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko and the country’s worst financial crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

Police beat and detained dozens of protesters. Crowds of Belarusians defied official warnings and torrential rain to march down a central street of the capital, clapping in unison after police physically prevented them from gathering in any one spot.

The Vesna rights advocacy group said more than 100 people were arrested after police lost patience and began rounding up the demonstrators, beating many with truncheons.

“Laughter and applause. These are our weapons against this dictatorship,” said Andrei Tyurlyukevich, a 19-year-old student.

Public anger has swelled at the government over the financial crisis and is centered on Mr. Lukashenko, who is accused of provoking the downturn by raising public sector wages.

Wednesday’s protest was the latest in a series of Internet-organized rallies the opposition entitles “Revolution by Social Networks.”

“The authorities are acting with increasing violence, trying to discourage the future rallies that are inevitable against the backdrop of the economic catastrophe,” Vesna spokesman Valentin Stefanovich said.

The severity of the financial crisis was illustrated early Wednesday when Russia cut off electricity supplies over unpaid bills. The crisis has eroded the Mr. Lukashenko’s power. He has run the nation of 10 million with an iron fist for 17 years, and been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the United States.

Social media activists have organized a series of weekly rallies, which attracted thousands of mostly young participants clapping their hands and stomping their feet to protest the government’s economic course. Police disbanded the gatherings in Minsk and other Belarusian cities and detained more than 450 people after last week’s rally.