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Belarus cracks down on growing protests

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Unlike previous occasions, when police merely dispersed the rallies, they reportedly moved in and arrested more than 100 in Minsk alone. A statement issued by police Wednesday warned that what looks like a "childish prank" on the Internet becomes a serious crime in the "real world," and blamed "instigators" abroad for stirring up the passions of Belarussian youth.

"The instigators have gone as far as to articulate openly their main purpose, which is staging a revolution through social networking sites in Belarus," the police statement said. "However ridiculous the purpose may appear, some people can really buy into these openly criminal intentions," and face severe legal penalties, it added.

Social media-power revolt

Flash mobs powered by social networks are a new experience for Belarus, a closed, post-Soviet nation of 10 million, often referred to in the West as "Europe's last dictatorship."

But such protests are likely to grow, and become more effective, as the country's summer of discontent grinds on. In a May opinion survey by the independent Institute of Sociology, Economy, and Political Studies in Minsk, over half of Belarussians said they could "not feed" or could "barely feed" their families on incomes whose buying power has been plunging since January.

"The situation is really tense," says Andrei Bastunets, deputy chair of the independent Association of Journalists in Minsk. "Salaries are effectively cut in half, while prices are up. People are getting restless."

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