Belarus' parliament gave preliminary approval Friday to tough new penalties that would make anti-government actions punishable with prison terms of two years or more.
The former Soviet republic's security service, known under its Soviet-era name KGB, said the measures were needed to prevent the mass uprisings following elections that brought opposition leaders to power in three other former Soviet republics.
"We have to protect national security and prevent color revolutions like those that happened in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan," KGB chief Stepan Sukharenko told lawmakers, referring to those countries' so-called Rose, Orange and Tulip revolutions.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron hand for 11 years and has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States, is to seek another term next year. He has accused Western nations of seeking to foment an overthrow of his government.
Lukashenko has reintroduced Soviet symbols, closed independent media and maintained rigid Soviet-style state controls over the economy. Many opposition leaders have either been jailed or have disappeared.
The new penalties were backed by 94 out of 110 lawmakers, with only one voting against. They still must receive final approval in a second reading within the next 10 days.
Under the new measures, those who finance or direct participants in mass disorders could be sentenced for up to three years in prison. Likewise for those who urge the seizure of government buildings or a forceful constitutional change. If such calls are made in the media, perpetrators could get five years imprisonment, while discrediting Belarus' international reputation could bring up to two years in prison.
"This is a return to Stalinism," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich said.
"This is the final preparation for the presidential elections. Lukashenko understands that people are going to defend their rights in the streets, and he is ready to put them in jail," he said.
Meanwhile, some 200 workers from a Minsk plant that produces motorcycles and bicycles held a protest rally in one of the capital's main streets to demand payment of back wages.
"I am in despair at this government, and my children are going hungry," said 44-year-old worker Igor Krutenya, who complained that he had not received his monthly salary equivalent to US$110 (Ђ94) since October, AP reports. P.T.