MALADZYECHNA, Belarus – The half-million Belarusians who can't find work in their country's stumbling Soviet-style economy face an array of hard choices: register with the state employment exchange, which will force them to "public work" for a pittance; pay $250 for failure to register; or risk being jailed for taking part in a rising wave of protests against the labor law.
Yevgeny Radkevich, a 19-year-old unemployed repairman, chose to protest. Recently freed from a seven-day jail stay after being arrested, he thinks he did the right thing.
"We have to go out and speak of our dissatisfaction, so that the government doesn't consider us to be slaves," Radkevich told The Associated Press in Maladzyechna, a down-at-the-heels city of 95,000 about 60 kilometers (35 miles) northwest of the capital, Minsk.
Over the past two months, such protests have broken out across the country of 9.5 million, sometimes attracting thousands of people — an unusually widespread and persistent show of opposition in an authoritarian country where dissent is generally suppressed.
The initial protests focused on the labor law but have grown to encompass calls for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko, whom critics call Europe's last dictator.
There were no arrests at the early protests, and Lukashenko tried to stifle the rising discontent by announcing that collecting the $250 tax would be suspended. But demonstrations continued, with more than 300 people arrested in March alone.
Lukashenko this week sharply raised tensions by claiming that Western intelligence agencies were using a "fifth column" inside the country to cause unrest, and he vowed Friday not to let Belarus repeat the fate of neighboring Ukraine. In 2014, Ukraine's Russia-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in the face of huge popular protests.
The tensions could come to a head on Saturday, when Lukashenko opponents plan a large demonstration in Minsk. Two days before the planned protests, the Belarusian KGB announced the detention of 26 opposition activists and claimed that weapons including grenades had been seized in apartment searches.
International human rights organization Amnesty International warned in a statement Friday that the protest must be "allowed to go ahead unhindered by excessive use of police force or arbitrary detentions."
After 23 years of Lukashenko's authoritarian rule, many Belarusians may have reached their limits. "Basta" — or "That's enough" — is a common slogan on posters at the protests.
"'Basta' means stop sitting in your armchair, stop mocking your people. 'Basta' means get out!" said Alexander Ponomarev, an unemployed electrician who served 10 days in jail after the Maladzyechna protest.
The law that has galvanized anger against Lukashenko says that anyone who works less than six months in a year and does not register with the labor exchange must pay $250. Although that's a huge amount in Belarus — about a month's average salary — an estimated 470,000 unemployed people have not registered with the exchanges, whereas only 30,000 have.
A registered person is required to do "public work" — often crude labor such as street-cleaning — at least one day a month, with compensation as low as $8.50.
The absence of arrests at the earlier protests and the suspension of fine collections suggested that Lukashenko could have been continuing what appeared to be the slow relaxation of his grip. Amid persistent economic troubles, Lukashenko has moved toward better relations with the West. Last year he released all political prisoners, which led to the lifting of European Union sanctions, and the government is seeking a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan in exchange for economic reforms.
Lukashenko in the past has resorted to widespread crackdowns when opposition grew, notably in the protests that erupted after the 2010 presidential election. Some 700 people were arrested at the time, including seven of the candidates who ran against him.
One of those candidates, Nikolai Statkevich, spent five years in prison but is challenging the system again as an initiator of the current protests, which he sees as a watershed.
"Belarus is waking up ... political demands for regime change are coming," he said.
Anti-government protests in previous years had been largely driven by the young and comparatively well-educated. But many of the protests this year have been in provincial cities, an indication that discontent is spreading in another sector of society.
"For the first time in 20 years, a new face has appeared in Belarusian protests. It is the impoverished people, for whom fear has been replaced by desperation and social protest," said Akexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.