Opposition Protests As Belarus Polls Close

Exit Polls Give Incumbent Overwhelming Lead in Belarus Presidential Vote; Opposition Rallies


MINSK, Belarus Mar 19, 2006 (AP)- Iron-fisted incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was headed to an overwhelming win in Sunday's presidential vote in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, the elections chief said. Thousands of opposition supporters protested the results in the city's main square.

The protesters chanted "Long Live Belarus!" and the name of the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich. Some waved a national flag that Lukashenko banned in favor of a Soviet-style replacement, while others waved European Union flags. Milinkevich arrived later.

The crowd in Oktyabrskaya square hooted when a large video screen broadcast a live statement from the Central Election Commission chief, who hailed the vote as a success with minimal violations.

Lidia Yermoshina said Lukashenko won 92.2 percent of the vote in hospitals and military units, where about 1.2 percent of the nation's eligible voters cast ballots.

She said overall results were unlikely to vary greatly from those numbers, virtually guaranteeing a third term for the authoritarian leader who has ruled the republic since 1994.

Lukashenko had vowed to prevent the kind of mass rallies that helped bring opposition leaders to power in former Soviet republics Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan following disputed elections.

The use or threat of force neutralized opposition efforts to protest vote results in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan last year, and a bloody government crackdown in Uzbekistan left hundreds dead.

"It will be a peaceful demonstration. We will come out with flowers," Milinkevich said after voting at a school. "We do not intend to elect a president on the square. We will tell people the truth."

Despite the government ban on protests, there was no immediate move by police to disperse the crowd. Forces guarded the hulking building facing the square that temporarily houses the election commission, but they did not surround protesters.

People blew horns and shouted "Mi-lin-ke-vich!" echoing the much larger crowds on Kiev's Independence Square in neighboring Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, which inspired the Belarus opposition.

"I came here to find out the real results of the election," student Veronika Danilyuk, 19, said. "I believe that he's the only one who can guarantee freedom and fairness to our country."

Earlier, two exit polls gave Lukashenko more than 80 percent of the vote. The polling was done by two groups that critics say are loyal to Lukashenko, and those figures were certain to fuel opposition claims of fraud and compound Western concern about the authoritarian government's conduct of the election.

Milinkevich said he would not recognize the results and called for a repeat vote.

"People will laugh at those figures," Milinkevich said. "In Poland, people began laughing at communist authorities and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there."

The Soviet past is strongly palpable in Belarus. The government makes five-year plans, the main state newspaper has "Soviet" in its title and the state security service is officially called the KGB.

Underlying the election is a struggle for regional influence between Russia and the West, which is seen by Lukashenko's government and its backers in Moscow as a major culprit in the political upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Lukashenko, who has been in office 12 years, accuses the West of plotting a repeat here. Belarus is one of the few former Soviet republics to remain loyal to the Kremlin.

The elections commission said 81 percent of the 7 million eligible voters had cast ballots by noon, clearing the 50 percent mark needed to make the election valid. Yermoshina said about 30 percent voted last week in early balloting, which is seen by the opposition as especially vulnerable to fraud.

The elections were being overseen by about 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Western countries have forged close ties with the opposition and made no secret of their contempt for the ruler of what Washington calls an outpost of tyranny in Europe. The United States has condemned the campaign as "seriously flawed and tainted."

After voting at a sports facility, Lukashenko dismissed international criticism.

"We in Belarus are conducting the election for ourselves," he said. "What is important is that elections take place in accordance with Belarusian legislation. As for sweeping accusations, I've been hearing them for 10 years. I've already gotten used to them."

The state has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations of violent, foreign-backed overthrow plots that its opponents say is aimed at frightening people off the streets and justifying the potential use of force against protesters. Security was tightened Sunday near the square and streets were closed to traffic.

On Thursday, the KGB chief accused the opposition of plotting to seize power with foreign help by detonating bombs and sowing chaos on election day, and warned that protesters could be charged with terrorism.

Since 1994, Lukashenko has silenced foes and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by the opposition and Western governments. Four opponents disappeared in 1999-2000.

While he is a dictator to his opponents and foreign critics, many Belarusians see the 51-year-old former collective farm manager as having brought stability after the uncertainty that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse. While the landlocked nation, about as big and flat as Kansas, is far from prosperous, the economy is growing and salaries are rising.

"He gives us work and a salary," said plumber Igor Nisakov, 52, a Lukashenko supporter.

Critics say the economic successes are unsustainable, based largely on cheap Russian energy and heavy-handed state intervention reminiscent of the communist era.

Milinkevich, 58, a former physicist, said he aimed to show that change was possible.

"Milinkevich gives us hope that we will pull ourselves out of this swamp," said Nina Karachinskaya, 38, a hairstylist. "The country must go not into the past but the future, and our future is Europe."