Opposition, Police Clash After Fraud Claims In Belarus Presidential Vote
Clashes pitting police against would-be demonstrators broke out in the Belarusian capital as authorities sought to disperse a protest by opposition supporters angry over perceived violations on election day. Police reportedly were trying to avert large-scale demonstrations soon after polling stations closed in a presidential election that incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was expected to dominate once officials began tallying the votes.
The protesters were reportedly moving toward October Square in downtown Minsk, where several of the nine presidential challengers, including Uladzimir Neklyayev, had urged them to gather.
Estimates put the number of protesters in the capital in the thousands, but reliable figures were difficult to come by. RFE/RL’s James Kirchick estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 Belarusians were gathered near October Square before riot police intervened.
At least one pro-government exit pollster had put Lukashenka’s support in the vote at around 80 percent, a figure that was likely to further rankle his political opponents.
Neklyayev, who heads the opposition Govori Pravdu (Tell the Truth) movement, was said to have been injured in the clashes with police trying to break up the gathering.
Most expected the vote to extend Lukashenka’s 16-year hold on power by another five years.
In seeking his fourth term as president, Lukashenka is running against nine challengers -- each of whom has faced administrative problems that have become common for any opposition candidates in Belarus.
As voting got under way, several opposition candidates already were claiming fraud and election irregularities. They called for a demonstration at October Square in Minsk after the polls closed.
Those critics include Andrei Sannikau -- a former deputy foreign minister who quit that post in 1996 and went into opposition against Lukashenka.
"It is clear that the Electoral Commission will be announcing results in Lukashenka’s favor," Sannikau said, adding that no candidate was likely to garner more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round without tampering. "In any normal country, with so many candidates, such an election would automatically go to a second round; so if they tell us there is no second round, this means the results are a lie and fraudulent. We will protest against it."
RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported that discrepancies emerged in the number of early voters in 86 of around 250 locations in Belarus being cited by local election watchers from the Campaign For Fair Elections.
After casting his ballot, Lukashenka offered more of the sort of disparaging language -- enforced by a security apparatus and courts seemingly bent on eliminating political competition -- that has led to his characterization by some as "Europe’s last dictator."
PHOTO GALLERY: Belarusians vote, the opposition cries foul, and Belarusian police brace for possible trouble in the capital...all as incumbent President Lukashenka breathes a sigh of relief.
"I don’t have dialog with bandits and subversives," he said on the topic of possible talks with opposition candidates, according to RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. "I talk to normal opposition, and I have to admit that among the alternative candidates there are a few normal, reasonable people with their positions and their opinions. I already appreciate this."
He also downplayed any talk of major protests on election night, at October Square or elsewhere, warning of repercussions based on tough Belarusian laws that effectively curb public dissent.
"For what awaits those who support this action -- read our laws," Lukashenka said. "Everything will be according to the law. It is the same for safety. Don’t worry. There will be nobody at the square today."
Neklyayev was widely expected to finish a distant second behind Lukashenka. He said on the eve of the vote that the only mechanism available to oppose fraudulent elections was to attend the October Square demonstration after the vote.
Another presidential candidate, Mikalay Statkievich, told RFE/RL he did not cast a ballot because the run-up to the vote was neither free nor fair.
"Those who hoped for some kind of liberalization, some kind of second round, I think they have made a big mistake," Statkievich said. "We have no other choice but to force them into democracy, and there is only one instrument for that: the square."
Correspondents in Belarus had wondered whether political fervor was in short supply amid freezing temperatures on the snow-filled streets of Minsk.
The European Union, the United States, and Russia have all struck deals with the Belarusian leader in recent weeks, signaling a possible willingness to grudgingly accept the president whom many regard as "Europe’s last dictator."
The European Union, trying to loosen up Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule, has been dangling the prospect of financial aid for Belarus if the vote has at least a veneer of fairness.
Brussels will take its cue from 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who have spread out across the country and are to report on December 20 about the conduct of the election.
The findings of the OSCE monitors -- along with Lukashenka’s margin of victory and the way security forces handle opposition protests -- could determine how far the European Union decides to engage Belarus in the future.
The OECD has never recognized a Belarusian vote as having met democracy or fairness standards.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka appeared to have repaired relations with his chief benefactor, Russia. Those ties have been frayed by a falling out with the Kremlin in recent years. But Lukashenka appeared to patch things up with the Kremlin last week when Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices for Belarus unchanged next year.
Moscow has been angry about several foreign policy snubs committed by Lukashenka. That raised hopes among EU officials that Lukashenka might open up the Belarusian economy and loosen his political grip in return for EU financial support.
compiled from RFE/RL and agency reports