'Last dictator' holds power in Belarus amid cries of fix

Jeremy Page

in Minsk

THE man dubbed 'Europe's last dictator' claimed a landslide victory in the Belarussian presidential election yesterday, setting the stage for a potentially bloody confrontation with opposition protesters.

Two state-controlled exit polls gave Aleksandr Lukashenko more than 80pc of the vote and Aleksandr Milinkevich, his main opponent, between 3pc and 5pc.

Mr Milinkevich accused the incumbent of rigging the vote and called for opposition supporters to rally on Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk to demand a new election.

"People will laugh at those figures," said the 58-year-old former university rector, whose supporters are calling for a "denim revolution".

Despite a warning last week by state security that they could face the death penalty, a crowd of 5,000 to 6,000 gathered in the square and shouted, "liar, liar", as they watched state television give the result on a big screen.

Some chanted, "Long live Belarus", and flew the country's former red and white flag, banned by President Lukashenko. Confrontation

More than 400 riot police waited near by ready to confront demonstrators. His overwhelming victory threatens to exacerbate tensions between the West and Russia in its first year as president of the G8 group of chief industrial powers.

Russia props up Mr Lukashenko's regime with up to ?4.3bn a year in subsidies and is discussing a reunification plan to prevent another former Soviet state moving out of its sphere of influence.

The United States, however, has labelled Belarus an "outpost of tyranny" and poured millions of dollars into promoting democracy in the country of ten million people. Washington and Brussels have threatened sanctions if the election proves to have been rigged.

Mr Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, hit back at the US yesterday, calling President Bush "terrorist No 1 on our planet".

"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," he said. (c The Times, London)