Protesters Charge Fraud in Belarus Presidential Election


MINSK, Belarus, Monday, March 20 - An expected landslide for President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko drew several thousand Belarussians into the streets on Sunday, as protesters ignored swirling snow and official threats of arrest to denounce the election as a clumsily orchestrated sham.

Thousands rallied as snow fell in Minsk Sunday to protest the re-election of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has been in office 12 years.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

With nearly all votes counted, Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss who has been in office 12 years, won 82.6 percent of the total, the chief of the Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, said Monday morning, according to The Associated Press. That figure exceeded even the state's own surveys of voters leaving the polls.

Early indications that Mr. Lukashenko would be the easy winner had, though, already hardened his opponents' assertions that the results were fraudulent.

"They say we want a revolution," the leading opposition candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich, told thousands of protesters who gathered peacefully in October Square, the central square in Minsk, as the polls closed at 8 p.m. Sunday. "No. We want only free and fair elections. What happened here was a farce. We do not recognize this election."

The election commission said Monday that Mr. Milinkevich trailed in a distant second place, with 6 percent.

The protest, drawing several thousand despite the snow and bitter cold, was the largest in years against Mr. Lukashenko, who is often denounced here and abroad as the last dictator in Europe. The protesters waved flags - including the former national flag, now banned, and that of the European Union, officially scorned - and chanted slogans demanding freedom.

"All they are saying is lies," Tatyana Agechich, an engineer who lost her job for disloyalty to Mr. Lukashenko's government, said as official statements were being broadcast on a large-screen television in the square, accompanied by jeers.

Although the authorities banned election day rallies and the country's security service - still known as the K.G.B. - warned that anyone causing disturbances could face charges of terrorism, the protest passed without the violent crackdown that many had feared.

Scores of police officers and security troops assembled in buses on side streets, but did not intervene. At times the protesters - estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 - broke into chants of "The police are with us."

Mr. Milinkevich addressed the crowd from the steps of the neo-classical Palace of Trade Unions, near the building where officials were announcing the results. A second opposition candidate, Aleksandr V. Kazulin, joined him in ridiculing the outcome.

Acknowledging the genuine popularity that Mr. Lukashenko has, however, Mr. Kazulin demanded only a second round of voting, which is required if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

"There is only one God," he said. "All others are servants of the people."

Although Mr. Lukashenko's opponents have modeled their campaign after the popular uprising that overturned a rigged presidential vote in Ukraine in 2004, the protesters in Minsk did not block traffic or try to set up camp, as the Ukrainians did in Kiev.

After three hours, they heeded a call to march half a mile down Independence Prospect to Victory Square. By early Monday, the crowd dispersed. The two opposition candidates called on the protesters to return Monday night once, as they expect, the final results are called into doubt by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Sunday's vote has become a new conflict between Belarus, the United States and the European Union. Both Europe and the United States have threatened penalties if the election is determined to be undemocratic. It is also likely to become a fresh source of tension between the West and Russia, which has supported Mr. Lukashenko's rule, openly at times. Russia and other former Soviet republics have sent their own election observers, who said in preliminary statements that the election was fair.

Mr. Lukashenko, after voting at a sports complex in Minsk, dismissed the chorus of American and European criticism that coincided with the end of the campaign, which was marred by dozens of arrests, restrictions on campaign events and harassment of independent organizations.

"We are holding elections for ourselves," Mr. Lukashenko said in remarks broadcast live on state television.

The transmission was abruptly stopped when he was questioned about the accusations of vote-rigging. In response to questions about whether Belarus under his rule has become a dictatorship, he denounced President Bush.

He called Mr. Bush "terrorist No. 1 on our planet" and ridiculed a White House report released last week that accused Mr. Lukashenko of amassing a personal fortune from arms sales and corruption. "He is not even capable of calculating his own incomes, gained from the oil and the war," Mr. Lukashenko said of Mr. Bush, according to the Interfax news agency.

The leading opposition candidate, Aleksandr Milinkevich, greeted his supporters on Sunday.

Election day, like the campaign, was divided into parallel worlds. Mr. Milinkevich's supporters reported instances of harassment and expulsions of observers sent to monitor the voting at polling places across the country.

State television, meanwhile, offered a series of interviews with analysts and observers, including a few Westerners, who praised the election. Mr. Lukashenko, elected in 1994 in what has been called the last free election in Belarus, has since orchestrated not only presidential and parliamentary elections, but also a constitutional referendum in 2004 that lifted the limits of him seeking a third term.

"What is going on today is the seizure of power by unconstitutional means," Mr. Milinkevich said in an interview in a cramped apartment that served as his campaign headquarters.

He noted that 10 of his 30 campaign managers had been arrested and remained in jail on election day. "What kind of election are we having if my campaign managers are in jail?" he said.

Many voters who were interviewed declined to state their names or their choices, but in Minsk and especially outside of it, Mr. Lukashenko's supporters praised his leadership over the last 12 years.

"I came to vote for our batka," Zoya A. Popkovskaya said loudly as she entered a polling station in Samokhvalovichi, a village south of Minsk, using a nickname for father that Mr. Lukashenko favors. "I want him to be elected for life - at least until he is a pensioner."

Ms. Popkovskaya, 69, explained her support for Mr. Lukashenko in ways often heard, especially in rural towns and among the elderly. "He has raised us," she said. "When he became president, he gave us our pensions and our children jobs."

It remains to be seen whether the protests will have any effect. Some in the crowd on Sunday expressed disappointment at the turnout.

"We would like more," Dmitry Yakovuk, 23, said, "but maybe people are not ready yet."