EU backs sanctions as Belarus president celebrates

By Adrian Blomfield in Minsk

The leader dubbed "Europe's last dictator" revelled yesterday in his victory in a disputed election and mocked the failure of people power to topple him.

Opposition activists filled a square in Minsk for a second evening to protest at the election result

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus poured scorn on the opposition and denounced activists who protested at the result as being in the pay of foreign powers.

But while triumphant at home, Mr Lukashenko was threatened with increased isolation abroad as the rest of the world denounced Sunday's vote as a sham.

EU foreign ministers immediately backed stiffer sanctions against the Belarusian leadership and the Bush administration called for a new election altogether.

Opposition activists filled a square in Minsk for a second evening last night to protest at Sunday's result, which gave Mr Lukashenko 82.6 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Alexander Milinkevich, won a mere six per cent of the vote in a contest that a White House spokesman criticised for being marred by a "climate of fear".

Riot police were deployed in side streets leading to the square in an attempt to intimidate the thousands of pro-western demonstrators braving the cold. Mr Lukashenko had earlier gloated over the opposition's failure to emulate protests in Georgia and Ukraine after elections the West had also denounced.

"Let me declare that the revolution so long talked about and so long prepared has failed," said Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994. "It couldn't be otherwise."

He dismissed those who ignored threats of arrest and even execution from his KGB to take part in unsanctioned rallies as being teenagers in the pay of foreign agents. Sunday night's rally, which drew between 6,000 and 15,000 people, began to peter out after a sudden blizzard swept through the square.

"You must see that God was with the Belarusian people yesterday," Mr Lukashenko said. "Nowhere in Belarus was there a snowstorm like there was in the square last night."

Though he insisted that Belarusians had elected him in an atmosphere of freedom, European observers were damning in their criticism of the poll.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe accused the security services of beating hundreds of opposition supporters.

"It is clear that this election did not meet international electoral standards," it said in a statement. "The arbitrary use of state power, obviously combined to protect the incumbent president, went far beyond acceptable practice."

The EU sanctions against Belarus are likely to include a visa ban and an asset freeze on Mr Lukashenko and other government officials, sources in Brussels indicated.

But in a sign of growing East-West tension over elections in the former Soviet Union, Russia and other former Soviet states denounced western pressure on Minsk.

Moscow said the legitimacy of the weekend's poll was "not in doubt" and President Vladimir Putin sent his congratulations to the victor.

Mr Putin is thought to dislike his bumptious counterpart but the Kremlin does not wish to alienate the only European country not to ally itself with the West.

During a fiery performance Mr Lukashenko referred to the Bible three times and lashed out at his opponents, neighbours - except for lone ally Russia - and the West.

He dismissed Americans as "ignoramuses" who saw Belarus as a country where "Siberian bears and Aborigines roam the streets".