Soviet-Style Army Parade Marks New National Holiday in Minsk

MINSK, Belarus -- President Alexander Lukashenko inaugurated Belarus' new independence day Thursday with a Soviet-style military parade and a defiant speech in Independence Square.

The main opposition group countered by declaring it a day of mourning for four children killed in a bus crash the day before.

As with virtually any public celebration in Belarus in recent months, the commemoration of the nation's independence has become fraught with controversy.

Since 1990, the former Soviet republic had celebrated its independence on July 27, the date when the first democratically elected parliament of Belarus adopted a declaration of sovereignty.

But a controversial referendum held by Lukashenko last fall changed the date to July 3, commemorating the date in 1944 that Soviet troops liberated Minsk from the Nazis.

Lukashenko, an authoritarian who laments the breakup of the Soviet Union, also dissolved the democratically elected parliament following the referendum.

Thursday's independence festivities began early, under a driving rain, with a flag ceremony at the presidential residence.

Then, at the military parade, nearly 4,000 soldiers and officers marched through Independence Square, accompanied by 100 combat vehicles.

In his speech, Lukashenko referred to those who oppose his efforts to reintegrate the former Soviet republics.

"Today, they are persistently playing a new card in an attempt to present Belarus as a totalitarian and nondemocratic state in the eyes of the world public,'' he said.

"But in course of time, the world community becomes more and more aware of our country's importance on the world arena," he added.

A parade of sportsmen followed, a staple of Soviet-era parades.