Belarus poll sets Russia, U.S. at odds

By Olena Horodetska

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko swept back into office on Monday in an election that was condemned by independent observers, ignited new opposition protests and set the United States and Russia at odds.

Several thousand people, defying warnings by Lukashenko's state security forces, massed in freezing weather in a central square after an appeal by opposition rival Alexander Milinkevich, who called for a re-run of the vote.

"We must stay here while we have the strength to do so. We must stay until victory," Milinkevich told 7,000 supporters.

But as the evening wore on, the crowd -- already smaller than the protest when polls closed on Sunday -- began thinning out.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and a bogeyman for the West because of his Soviet-style policies, defended his re-election -- officially by a tally of 82.6 percent of the vote -- as "honest and democratic". Milinkevich scored about 6 percent.

He told a news conference that a pro-Western revolution, like those that swept away entrenched establishments in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia, had been stopped in its tracks.

But the outcome, never in doubt given the tight control Lukashenko exerts over the media and all aspects of political life, put Washington and Moscow at variance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom the arrival in power of pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine has highlighted Moscow's declining influence in former Soviet territory, quickly congratulated Lukashenko.

"The results of the election testify to the fact that the voters trust in your course," the Kremlin quoted Putin's message of congratulation as saying.

Within minutes, the United States, which last year described Lukashenko as "Europe's last dictator", denounced his victory and said the election had been conducted in a "climate of fear".

"We support the call for a new election," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.


In October Square, opposition supporters pitched four small tents -- reminiscent of the "tent city" that sprang up in Kiev city centre in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in December 2004.

Protesters chanted the single word "Truth", and played music tapes to keep spirits high. State television described the rally as a "crowd of drunken youngsters".

Milinkevich said the opposition's objective was to achieve a dialogue with the government, which has long ignored rivals.

There was no sign of intervention by the security forces, who warned against such protests on the eve of the election.

But nor was there any indication the rally could swell to the magnitude of the Kiev upheaval that led to a rigged election result being annulled and a pro-Western leader coming to power.

Earlier, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a thumbs-down to the conduct of the poll.

"The 19th March presidential election did not meet the required international standards for free and fair elections," said Alcee Hastings, coordinator for the OSCE observer mission.

"The arbitrary abuse of state power, obviously designed to protect the incumbent President, went far beyond acceptable practice," the OSCE, Europe's largest rights and security body, said in a statement.

The European Union said it would "very likely" extend sanctions -- probably further restrictions on travel for Belarussian officials rather than punitive economic measures.

The reaction from Washington and the EU clearly indicated there would be no change in Belarus's international isolation.

Differences between Washington and Moscow will bring fresh tension into relations between the former superpower rivals in a year when Russia chairs the Group of Eight club of rich nations.

Lukashenko, 51, renewed charges that his rivals had planned a new pro-Western revolt.

"Let me say that the revolution that so many people talked about and some were preparing, has failed and it could not be otherwise," the former state farm head told a news conference.