President Reelected in Belarus
Thousands marched through the capital clutching flowers and shouting “Freedom!” on Sunday to protest election results that handed President Alexander G. Lukashenko another overwhelming victory after 12 years of almost single-handed power.
In an echo of recent pro-democracy protests that have rocked authoritarian governments across the former Soviet Union, supporters of opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich pledged to continue protests today. They ridiculed final returns that gave 82.6% of the vote to the 51-year-old Lukashenko, whom the Bush administration calls Europe’s last dictator. The returns credited Milinkevich with 6% of the vote.
As dozens of trucks and buses filled with police in riot gear waited ominously on side streets, a crowd estimated at 10,000 filled Oktyabrskaya Square in the center of the city, waving traditional Belarusian and European Union flags and demanding a vote recount or new elections.
“Millions of people were deceived today during this vote,” said Milinkevich, a pro-Western physicist who was chosen by a coalition of pro-democracy parties to challenge the authoritarian government that has led this former Soviet republic since 1994. “We want to live better. We want to live free!”
Alexander Kozulin, a former university rector who drew about 2% of the vote, according to the early returns, congratulated the police for allowing the protest to proceed without incident, even when demonstrators left the square and began marching in a wave toward Victory Square, with motorists honking and shouting in support.
“People of Belarus, you have awakened! The revolution has taken place!” Kozulin said. “Let’s all together say that Lukashenko should go to a deserved retirement.”
The three-hour rally took place in a snowstorm that at one point became so severe that some believed the police had aimed artificial-snow machines at the crowd. But the police stood quietly along the edges, and there were no reported arrests.
Kozulin said Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had advised Lukashenko to allow the protests, but it was not clear whether the government would tolerate a second day of street actions, scheduled to begin again this evening.
“Nobody should be indifferent that here in the center of Europe, we don’t have democracy. We’re here to stand up against dictatorship,” said Yelena Medvedeva, a 41-year-old businesswoman who traveled to Minsk from the town of Babruysk. “We will stand here to the last. I’m not afraid of anything.”
Yet elsewhere in Minsk, the capital, the elections unfolded without incident with a reported turnout of more than 92%, and there was little sense of tension or unease. Restaurants and shopping malls were full, and many polling stations featured folk dancers and concerts. Lukashenko’s genuine popularity among many of Belarus’ citizens was evident.
“We voted only for our father,” said Yadviga Stashkevich, 58, a pensioner who cast her ballot for the president at a suburban school. “He pays our pensions on time, and we have stability.”
Lukashenko, a former manager of collective farms, has raised salaries and pensions and fostered robust economic growth even while maintaining state control over 80% of the economy. He appeared confident he would win another five years in office as he cast his own ballot Sunday morning, scoffing at the Bush administration’s allegations that he had amassed what may be billions of dollars through corruption and that he sold equipment to Iran that could be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
"[President] Bush ... is terrorist No. 1 on our planet, openly destroying states in different parts of the world and then killing presidents,” he said, in a possible reference to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
“If someone thinks I’m a dictator, good luck to him. But it’s impossible to have a dictator in Europe. Only stupid people would think that,” he said.
Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov in an interview last week denied that Belarus had improperly supplied weapons material to Iran.
“Belarus never, ever in its arms trade violated U.N. sanctions. Iran is not under sanctions,” he said. “Iran is a friendly country and an important market for us, and we don’t see why we would stop working in the Iranian market.”
A fourth candidate, Sergei Gaidukevich, is a Lukashenko ally and head of the Liberal Democratic Party who has done little campaigning. He drew about 3.5%.
Opposition leaders accused Lukashenko of closing down independent newspapers, blocking legal campaign rallies, arresting opposition activists and encouraging large numbers of voters to cast ballots early in the days preceding the election in what opponents contended was an attempt to manipulate the vote tally.
“The legal [restrictive] provisions on campaigning, the manner in which they are being interpreted and actions of state bodies have limited the scope for a vibrant election campaign,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the election, said in a statement before the balloting.
Milinkevich alleged campaign violations including the arrest of more than 450 campaign activists, with more than 160 of them subjected to substantial fines, and the seizure of 260,000 campaign leaflets paid for with state funding allocated to presidential candidates.
Still, thousands of opposition supporters were allowed to stage a rally and rock concert, “For Freedom,” in the capital Saturday, with supporters waving European Union and Belarus nationalist flags, and bands singing songs critical of the government.
“President, go home!” one musician sang.
“I was born in the Soviet Union,” said another. “I don’t want to go back to it.”