Belarus president claims victory in vote, but rival alleges fraud

Government officials thwarted efforts to judge election, monitors say

September 10, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MINSK, Belarus -- The dictatorial leader of Belarus claimed a crushing election victory early today over opponents who hoped to ease state control of the economy and end political repression.

Election officials said last night that President Alexander Lukashenko held a lead of 78 percent, with three-quarters of the vote counted.

Shortly after midnight, Lukashenko went on Belarus television to claim an "elegant victory."

But Lukashenko's chief rival in the contest, Vladimir Goncharik, accused the president of election fraud.

Goncharik said a parallel count of the ballots by his supporters showed Lukashenko leading by only 47 percent to Goncharik's 40 percent.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff.

Thousands of Goncharik supporters rallied in the rain in Minsk's central square shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. The crowd blew whistles, chanted and roared: "Long live Belarus!" "Shame! Shame! Shame on them!" and "Motherland! Freedom! Down with the Lukashenko monster!"

Although the crowd didn't seem ready to concede the election, neither was it prepared to celebrate. A 20-year-old journalist, who would give his name only as Dennis, stood under an umbrella and compared his country to a woman who is beaten by her husband but afraid to call the police. "People have been so pushed down, they have learned to submit," he said.

"Lukashenko has deprived us of everything; we've become beggars," Minsk resident Mikhail Satsatckov said.

Lukashenko's only public appearance was at noon yesterday, when he voted at polling station No. 1, in Minsk's Olympics training complex. Smiling broadly, he handed a red rose to an election official. Poll workers applauded as he dropped his ballot into a sealed box.

In talking with reporters, Lukashenko refused to discuss allegations of human rights abuses. He threatened to expel Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission here, who has been critical of the regime. "It's high time for him to leave," Lukashenko said. "If he doesn't, we may have to help him."

And Lukashenko said he is not concerned about the possibility that European governments and the United States will refuse to recognize the outcome of the election. "Our elections don't need recognition from outside," he said.

On Saturday night, government officials stripped the accreditation of about 2,000 of the more than 21,000 election monitors for Belarussian groups. Yesterday, some of the remaining monitors said local officials sometimes refused to supply basic information, such as how many people were registered to vote there.

Belarus officials said last night that there were no reports of problems at the polls. "There are many complaints, but there's no evidence of any kind of abuses," said Lidiya Ermoshina, chairman of the country's Central Election Committee. The only concerns raised, she said, were "trivial."

Sergey Posoknov, an adviser to Lukashenko, said the president has been misrepresented in Western media. He pointed out that the government let hundreds of foreign reporters cover the election and did not try to stop Goncharik's supporters from staging their rally. "No policemen appeared to tell them to get out," he said. "What kind of dictatorship is that?"

Human rights organizations and activist groups say peaceful demonstrators are routinely harassed, beaten and arrested by police. Some voters said yesterday that they were afraid to say Goncharik's name on the phone out of fear they would be visited by the state security service -- still called the KGB.

At one polling place in central Minsk, Valentina Churkina, a researcher at Belarus' national art museum, marked her ballot in a booth with a yellow curtain. Then she dropped it into a red-painted ballot box. The stylishly dressed woman in her 60s was not moved by criticism of Lukashenko's human rights record.

What impressed her, she said, were the many public works projects Lukashenko's regime has started. "A lot of nice buildings have appeared in Minsk," she said. "There are flowers everywhere. The city has become much cleaner."

Lukashenko has been president since Ksenya Kopets was 13. The 20-year-old linguistics student said the country has now had enough of him: She voted for Goncharik. "I think he is perhaps a good demagogue," she said.

"His words are beautiful. But there is nothing beneath his words."

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