By Michael Mainville
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
MINSK, Belarus -- Thousands of opposition supporters gathered for a second night of protests in central Minsk yesterday, heartened by Western condemnation of a weekend election in which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko was declared a runaway winner.
About 6,000 protesters -- less than the 10,000 who rallied after the polls closed on Sunday -- called for fresh elections and the end of Mr. Lukashenko's 12-year rule.
"We free people of Belarus will never recognize this election," opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told the crowd gathered in October Square. "This was not an election. It was an anti-constitutional coup d'etat."
The opposition hopes to re-create the weeks of protests that led to peaceful revolutions in two other former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia.
With overnight temperatures at 28 degrees, protesters set up a dozen small tents and vowed to turn the demonstration into a round-the-clock presence, repeating a tactic used in Ukraine. Most of the tents were draped with historic national flags favored by critics of Mr. Lukashenko, who has scrapped them for a Soviet-style version.
Protesters locked arms in a human chain guarding the tiny encampment. Others tried to bring in blankets, food and hot drinks, but often were detained by police.
Mr. Milinkevich returned to the square at about midnight to visit the campers, who were surrounded by about 1,000 supporters.
He vowed to remain with the campers, saying, "I don't have a tent, so I am going to stay on my feet," and predicted that more demonstrators would be arriving to join them.
"There has never been anything like this in Belarus," he added. "The whole world is watching us."
The protest was peaceful in spite of repeated threats from the authorities to violently suppress demonstrations. Hundreds of police and officers of Mr. Lukashenko's feared secret police -- still known by the Soviet-era acronym KGB -- watched from the sidelines or roamed through the crowd.
Mr. Lukashenko -- who since coming to power in 1994 has reintroduced Soviet-style economic and political controls on this country of about 10 million -- officially was declared to have won 82.6 percent in the vote, compared with 6 percent for Mr. Milinkevich. The president was allowed to seek a third, five-year term after a widely condemned 2004 referendum that removed presidential term limits.
Mr. Lukashenko defended his re-election as "honest and democratic," saying during a press conference yesterday that voters had shown "who's the boss" in Belarus. He also said his opponents had failed in their efforts to topple him in a foreign-backed revolution.
"The revolution that was talked about so much has failed," he said. "You have seen our opposition, and if you are reasonable people you have been convinced that it's worthless."
The United States and the European Union, which have labeled Mr. Lukashenko "the last dictator in Europe," yesterday rejected the election results and threatened further sanctions against the government.
"The United States does not accept the results of the election," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One. "The election campaign was conducted in a climate of fear. It included arrests and beatings and fraud."
Mr. McClellan warned Belarusian authorities against "threatening or detaining those exercising their political rights in the coming days and beyond."
The run-up to the election was marked by the arrests of hundreds of opposition activists, official harassment of the opposition and pro-Lukashenko propaganda in the country's state-controlled media.
Among the possible sanctions are a wider ban on foreign travel by Mr. Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials, the seizure of officials' assets abroad and the cutting of foreign aid.
The biggest Western-based monitoring group to observe the election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was categorical in its condemnation of the vote yesterday.
"The March 19 presidential election does not meet the required international standards for free and fair elections," said U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat, who coordinated the more than 400 OSCE observers during the vote.