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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko easily wins fifth term

A Belarusian soldier votes in a booth at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Oct. 11, 2015.

A Belarusian soldier votes in a booth at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Oct. 11, 2015.

(Roman Pilipey / European Pressphoto Agency)

In a voting campaign reminiscent of tightly controlled, Soviet-era elections, President Alexander Lukashenko easily won his fifth term Sunday to rule over what has been called the last dictatorship in Europe for another five years.

Lukashenko received 83% of the vote over the three other candidates, according to the Central Election Committee.

The only real question going into Sunday’s election was by how much Lukashenko would win by, given a boycott of the vote by the country’s pro-Western opposition, and whether the results would spark mass protests, such as the ones that ended in violent clashes with police and hundreds of arrests in 2010.

With reelection a guarantee, Lukashenko indicated that the brief liberalization of political freedom before Sunday’s vote would end almost immediately.

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“After 8 [p.m.], you are going to live according to the law and if you cross the Rubicon you know what is going to happen to you,” he told the media.

Throughout the week leading up to the vote, the government made huge efforts to call people to vote. Text messages were sent out countrywide, posters and advertisements were plastered on billboards and windows, and the red and green of Belarus’ flag were hung on nearly every lamppost along Minsk’s main drag, the 9-mile-long Independence Street.

Still, there was a palpable sense of apathy about the election in a country that has seen little change since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, rules over a state-owned economy in which jobs, university enrollment and the media are directly tied to the government. Dissenters have been fired from state-owned companies or dismissed from universities.

“There is no sense in voting in this election because there is no democracy here,” said Natalia Mohnatch, a pensioner who said she had boycotted balloting that she did not believe really counted. “We are frozen in this situation, and I don’t see a realistic way out of it.”

During the evening, a group of about 150 to 200 demonstrators gathered in Minsk, many carrying the now-banned former Belarusian red-and-white flag and slogans denouncing the government. Police arrived and warned the protesters to disperse. One person was arrested and accused of organizing the unlawful event.

Landlocked Belarus is wedged between the European Union and Russia, where an increasingly authoritative President Vladimir Putin has used his country’s close economic ties with Belarus to keep it under the Kremlin’s perceived sphere of influence.

But as Russia’s economy has shrunk because of falling oil prices and Western sanctions imposed after Moscow annexed Crimea last year, so too has Belarus’ budget. As a result, Lukashenko has begun to look to the West for economic relief, which will come only if he can show the United States and Europe that he is willing to improve his record on human rights and political freedom.

In the weeks before the election, Lukashenko ordered the release of six jailed opposition leaders considered by the United States to be political prisoners. In the last year, he has hosted a series of peace talks on Ukraine, shaken hands with world leaders and had his photo taken with President Obama after the United Nations General Assembly meeting last month.

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The European Union has said it will lift sanctions on Belarus for four months if Sunday’s election passes without another clampdown. The U.S. has not said whether it will lift its sanctions.

For those who supported Lukashenko’s reelection, many were motivated by the authoritative leader’s promise of “peace and stability” in Belarus at a time when the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and a struggling economy at home have put Belarusians on edge.

“He’s a strong leader and we can’t let anything like Maidan happen here,” said Igor Demidovich, 63, a pensioner, referring to the mass protest movement in the Ukrainian capital last year that overthrew a Kremlin-favored government. “Lukashenko has kept us safe and done everything right for us, so we are happy with him. I see no reason to change leaders now.”

Demidovich cast his ballot Sunday afternoon at polling station No. 53, located on the second floor of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food in central Minsk. Like other polling stations, it was a scene of celebration, complete with loudspeakers on the sidewalk blaring traditional Russian folk songs being sung by a costumed quartet inside.

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Nina Kozalova, 77, wasn’t falling for the bright lights and free concerts, however.

“I’m boycotting,” Kozalova said, adding that she was struggling to survive on her $130 a month pension. “I think Lukashenko hates us Belarusians. He only loves the Soviet Union. What was good about the Soviet Union? What’s good about Lukashenko? Nothing.

“Nothing will change after this election,” she said. “As soon as he gets money from Europe, he’ll go back to hating us again and doing whatever he likes.”

Ayres is a special correspondent.

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