Lukashenko set for victory, opposition rallies

By Olena Horodetska

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko looked set for election victory on Sunday, but liberal opponents defied his warnings and thronged central Minsk, denouncing the poll as rigged and demanding a re-run.

Lukashenko, accused by the West of crushing human rights and falsifying elections during 12 years in power, says his rivals are Western-funded troublemakers. In the campaign's final days, he vowed to "wring the necks" of anyone violating public order.

Chief rival Alexander Milinkevich, appearing before 10,000 at the central October Square, said the demonstration marked a victory for the opposition over fear.

Police were not impeding the demonstrators, who were waving European Union and blue opposition flags and the white and red national colours banned by Lukashenko. But witnesses said riot police were massing in adjacent streets.

Lukashenko is wary of any repeat of upheavals, growing out of challenges to poll results, that brought pro-Western leaders to power in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

Braving freezing temperatures and snow that fell more heavily as the evening wore on, many Belarussians brought flowers to the square as a sign their protest was peaceful.

"They say we want a revolution. But we want only fair and honest elections without cheating," Milinkevich told reporters in October Square.

"We have already achieved a colossal victory. People have overcome their fear. Our objective is new and fair elections."

Milinkevich was unable for some time to address the crowd -- the biggest attending an opposition rally in years -- as no sound system had been put in place in advance.

He waved a bunch of carnations as the crowd broke into chants of "Freedom!" and "Long live Belarus!". Standing alongside him was the second opposition candidate, academic Alexander Kozulin.

The fourth candidate on the ballot is an ally of Lukashenko.


Lukashenko, known as "batka" or father, tells Belarussians he has offered stability and relative prosperity compared to other ex-Soviet states. He remains broadly popular, particularly among elderly and rural voters.

Election officials announced a turnout of 92.6 percent in the election. With just over 1 percent of votes counted, official returns gave Lukashenko 92.2 percent of the vote compared with 2.9 percent for Milinkevich.

Preliminary results were expected by midnight.

Long before voting ended, two pro-government institutes had issued "exit polls" showing Lukashenko capturing more than 80 percent to about four percent for his main rival.

The president was decidedly more measured on voting day than in the run-up to the poll.

"We will react appropriately to things depending on the circumstances," a beaming Lukashenko said at his polling station. "The campaign is proceeding in a calm, ordinary fashion as in previous years."

But he hit back at longstanding U.S. allegations that Belarus was the "last dictatorship in Europe", denouncing President George W. Bush as "terrorist no. 1 on the planet".

Both the European Union and the United States vow to boost sanctions against Belarus if hundreds of independent observers now in Belarus -- many from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- say the vote is unfair.

Despite Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin's distaste for the president, Russia will almost certainly give quiet approval to the polls as Belarus is its only ally on its western borders.