Belarus braced for backlash as Lukashenko heads for victory

Protesters turn out despite warnings of bloodshed

Exit poll predicts 82% win but opposition cries foul

Nick Paton Walsh in Minsk

Monday March 20, 2006

The Guardian

The capital of Belarus was braced for a tense standoff last night as thousands of opposition protesters braved the threat of execution to demonstrate against a tightly orchestrated election likely to give the authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, a third term.

With exit polls predicting an overwhelming win for Mr Lukashenko just hours after polls had opened, opposition leaders cried foul and 5,000 supporters flocked to a central square in Minsk to protest against the repression of the electoral campaign, during which some 400 people were arrested.

The US and the European Union have already denounced police threats against the opposition and warned of harsh diplomatic reprisals if observers condemn the vote as fraudulent. But Mr Lukashenko chided his international opponents, denying Washington's claim that he is "the last dictator in Europe" and describing George Bush as the planet's "Terrorist No 1".

Mr Lukashenko, whose KGB dubbed the opposition as "terrorists" and threatened them with execution, had said his police will "wring the necks" of anyone caught protesting. Driving snow coupled with such threats, amplified by a text message campaign that warned Minsk residents of impending bloodshed, were expected to keep many disgruntled Belarusians away from the evening rally planned for the central Oktyabrskaya Square.

Last night Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, was on course for a landslide, with turnout already at 71% by 2pm and a state-run exit poll, released at 11am, giving Mr Lukashenko 82% of the vote. His main opponent, the pro-western academic Alexander Milinkevich, polled 2.2%, and later said voting irregularities meant the election should be rerun.

"People will laugh at those figures," he told a news conference, saying that Belarus had undergone a "political awakening" during this campaign comparable to that which brought down the communist government in neighbouring Poland.

"In Poland people began laughing at communist authorities and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there."

He said he would not be surprised if Mr Lukashenko were allowed 120% of votes.

Voting in Minsk at polling station No 1 Mr Lukashenko told AFP: "If someone thinks I'm a dictator, good luck to him. But it's impossible to have a dictator in Europe. Only stupid people would think that."

State television was dominated by contented Belarusians endorsing the third term of their Batka - father - who changed the constitution in 2004 to enable him to run again and become the longest-serving leader in Europe.

Washington has turned the screw on the Lukashenko administration, releasing a report on Friday detailing Mr Lukashenko's personal finances and claiming his regime sold arms to Iran and laundered money for Saddam Hussein. Yesterday Mr Lukashenko responded, talking of Mr Bush's escapades in Iraq: "To openly crush various states in different parts of the world, and then get to presidents and start killing them - I mean, excuse me!"

Moscow, which is keen to avoid another neighbouring state turn westwards after recent upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine, has given Mr Lukashenko its qualified backing, keeping its gas prices low to boost the state-run Belarusian economy. A team of Russian observers told Interfax yesterday that they had seen no "serious violations that could influence the outcome of the vote".

Western observers were expected to condemn the poll today.

Indifference and fear gripped yesterday's voting, with the police a constant presence. Katya Bykova, 23, a physicist, said she voted for Mr Milinkevich because "things could not get any worse". She said she would not join any protest because "of the weather. Plus, there's no point."

Pensioner Raisa Alexandrovna said she voted for the president as "he protects people and the others want to exterminate us".