Belarus election is declared invalid

U.S. backs opposition call for rerun

protesters rally for second night in Minsk

March 21, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MINSK, Belarus -- International monitors declared Sunday's presidential election in Belarus invalid yesterday, as opposition activists in the capital organized a second night of protests and called for a new vote this summer.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a third term with nearly 83 percent of the vote was marred by irregularities in the counting of ballots after widespread harassment of opposition candidates.

"It is clear that the incumbent president allowed state authority to be used in a manner that did not allow free and fair elections in Belarus," U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, head of the OSCE's parliamentary assembly, told reporters in Minsk.

The Bush administration criticized the election for being conducted "in a climate of fear." White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the United States would not accept the results and that it supported the opposition's call for a new election.

Russia, however, extended its congratulations to Lukashenko, who is considered a staunch ally. "The results of the election that has just taken place are evidence of the voters' confidence in the course you have chosen to ensure rising prosperity for the Belarusian people," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said in a telegram to Lukashenko.

The sharp contrast in reactions highlighted the struggle for influence between the West and Russia, which has blamed money and training from the United States and the European Union for revolutions in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The European Union said it was likely to impose financial and diplomatic sanctions on Belarus' top officials. At the White House, officials said restrictions such as travel restrictions "are things we will look at."

Lukashenko became president of Belarus in 1994 in what is widely considered the nation's last free election. Since then, he has systematically consolidated power and, through a series of fraudulent votes, eliminated all opposition from parliament.

The latest election campaign was marked by the arrest of opposition activists and suppression of independent news media.

According to results announced by the Central Election Committee after an initial ballot count, Lukashenko received 82.6 percent of the vote. Officials said the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, received 6 percent.

Milinkevich refused to accept the outcome, calling Lukashenko an "illegal, illegitimate president."

"Our protest will be long and strong," he told demonstrators gathered last night at a central square. "We will never recognize this election. It's not an election but an anti-constitutional seizure of power."

At a news conference yesterday, Lukashenko was boastful, repeating allegations that the opposition was backed by the United States and Western Europe.

"The revolution that was talked about so much ... has failed," he said, adding that the public had resisted "colossal pressure from outside" and "showed who's the boss."

"You have seen our opposition, and if you are reasonable people you have been convinced that it's worthless," the president said. "Who was there to fight with? Nobody, understand? That's why we gave them the opportunity to show themselves, even though it was illegal," he said of Sunday night's opposition rally.

At the end of the workday, about 5,000 demonstrators gathered at the square waving flags, blowing whistles and holding placards calling for Lukashenko's ouster. "The Sweetest Word: `Ex-President,'" read one.

Plainclothes security forces were in the crowd, and militiamen stood around the square throughout the evening. But the rally was peaceful for the second night in a row.

Before the election, the Belarusian KGB had accused the opposition of planning a violent seizure of power and declared that taking to the streets would be considered an act of terrorism.

Last night's crowd was significantly smaller than Sunday night's, which was estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. Milinkevich's campaign manager, Sergei Kalyakin, acknowledged yesterday that not nearly enough people had gathered; 10 times as many were needed to have an effect, he said.

In a show of unity, Milinkevich and another opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin, appeared together on the steps of a government building and addressed the rally in succession.

Selected in October to be the main opposition candidate, Milinkevich denounced the election results to cheers of "Shame!" and said Belarus is being ruled by an "illegitimate president."

"We are not going to acknowledge these elections," said Milinkevich, a physicist. "These are not elections. This is an unconstitutional state coup. We are not going to let power be seized by force. We want the power of the law."

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