Belarus president gets an apparent landslide

March 20, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MINSK, Belarus -- Thousands of demonstrators gathered here last night even as President Alexander Lukashenko seemed assured of an overwhelming re-election victory, as unofficial results showed him receiving more than 80 percent of the vote and his nearest competitor about 2 percent.

Supporters of the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, dismissed those figures, pointing to different polling data that indicated Lukashenko had failed to receive the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff. Even before the release of official results, Milinkevich expressed hope that the European Union and the United States would refuse to recognize Lukashenko's re-election.

Last night, Lukashenko dismissed criticism of the campaign, which included barring some election monitors from entering the country and the detention of opposition candidates. He focused much of his criticism on the United States, calling President Bush "Terrorist No. 1 on our planet," according to the Interfax news agency.

In recent days, officials had warned that they might arrest Election Day protesters and charge them with terrorism. Opposition leaders said they wanted demonstrators to remain at October Square overnight, in hopes that their numbers would grow. Those in the square faced police and cheered "Long live Belarus!"

Despite the protesters calling for new leadership, the government's tight control on the flow of information could keep significant change out of reach.

"Authorities have paralyzed all independent and opposition newspapers," said Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy editor of Narodnaya Volya, or "People's Will," which has been printed in Russia because printing houses in Belarus refused. "They don't want any other information."

Officials at the border seized all copies of the newspaper three times this month, and authorities told its staff last week not to attempt to bring in any more issues until after the election. Narodnaya Volya, the first independent daily in Belarus, was also informed that its printer in Russia was canceling its contract. The official reason given, Kalinkina said, was that the company had too much other business.

"I felt that it was coming," said Kalinkina, whose reporters were unsure whether they would be able to publish and distribute an edition today containing the election results. "This was definitely a political decision." If the country had an independent press, she said, "Belarus would be an absolutely different country."

More than half the people polled here in a recent independent survey, including those who said they intended to vote for the president, said they didn't have enough information to make the right choice.

"In the newspapers, there is no information, just state propaganda and the message of the government," Pyotr Martsev, founder of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, said of the state-run press.

The State Department's most recent report on human rights in Belarus, released this month, documented examples of the government's attempts to crack down.

In January, the report said, a privately run sports newspaper and its editor were fined $18,600 for printing an article about the head of the Belarussian Gymnastics Federation's alleged involvement in organized crime. In September, Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta was fined $23,000, allegedly for libeling a former police officer.

Other newspapers have been removed from the state's official subscription list and are banned from being sold at state-run kiosks. In June, a judge in Minsk ordered Narodnaya Volya to pay $50,000 to a pro-Lukashenko politician after he filed suit over an article alleging involvement in a corruption scandal. The paper did not have the money to pay the fine, and readers raised the funds.

Within an hour of submitting the final payment, Narodnaya Volya was notified that its printing and distribution contracts were being canceled.

At one of his last campaign appearances, Milinkevich, the opposition candidate, told supporters a joke about the propaganda machine that is state-run television: A man drinking shots of vodka with a friend keeps saying he wants to go to Belarus. The friend tells him over and over that he's already in Belarus. No, the first man explains: "I want the Belarus that is shown on TV."

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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