Protesters defy Belarus's Lukashenko over poll

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters defied Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko for a third day on Tuesday, massing in the capital to protest over his re-election, denounced as flawed by Washington and independent observers.

In a protest unprecedented for the tightly-controlled, ex-Soviet state, opposition demonstrators continued an overnight vigil and camped in driving snow on a Minsk central square to back a call for a re-run of a vote they say was rigged.

Lukashenko, 12 years in power and criticized by the opposition and in the West for authoritarian Soviet-style rule, swept back into office on Monday with an official tally of 82.6 percent.

Nearest rival Alexander Milinkevich, with six percent, called the poll fraudulent, a view shared widely in the West, though the result was never in doubt given Lukashenko's control over much of public life and media.

At least 500 protesters, most of them young people, rallied to Milinkevich's call for fresh elections and camped in tents on October Square overnight in an action reminiscent of the highly-organized 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine.

"I came here to support these young people. In previous years I was marching under the red flags and I think it was wrong. That's why I am here. I want my grandchildren to be proud of me," 66-year-old pensioner Pavel Rusetsky said.

A 34-year-old taxi driver, who would give only his first name of Dima, brought tea and blankets to those demonstrating despite freezing weather and snow.

"Lukashenko has re-elected himself as always. These are courageous people and I want to help them," he said.

Though the numbers were far fewer than those who turned out in Ukraine's pro-western revolution, the action was unprecedented for Belarus, where Lukashenko's state security service normally cracks down swiftly on public dissent.

Nobody was expecting the demonstration to swell into a people's power protests like those seen in Ukraine and Georgia.

But Lukashenko, while not sending in police to break up the demonstration, was clearly watching for any signs the protests would gain momentum.

Police made no move to break up the demonstration or impede protesters at the square. But they tried to stop a slow flow of people by checking documents and searching bags. They also detained some activists after they left the central square.


Court hearings against some opposition activists detained earlier opened in Minsk. Rulings were expected later in the day.

The opposition said about a dozen activists, including independent Belarussian reporters, had been detained by police during two days of protests.

"We must stay here permanently. We must stay here until the victory," Milinkevich told protesters in the early morning.

The opposition is demanding a new election in July and called a bigger rally in the evening.

Lukashenko said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup.

The 51-year-old former state farm director says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has befallen other former Soviet republics. Most analysts acknowledge he would have won the election easily without subjecting the opposition to pressure.

The predictable election result set Washington and Moscow at variance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom the rise to power of pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine highlighted dwindling influence in former Soviet areas, congratulated him.

The United States, which last year described Lukashenko as "Europe's last dictator", said the poll had been conducted in a "climate of fear" and backed a call for new elections.

Despite heavy snow, chilly wind and sub-zero temperatures, around 500 people stayed on the square. They sang folk songs and some danced to blaring music to keep warm.

"I am in a perfect mood," said Sasha, 19-year-old student. "I will be coming here until the victory. We are not afraid of anything," he said waving a white and red Belarussian national flag banned by Lukashenko.

On Monday, up to 7,000 protesters gathered in the square, compared with 10,000 after polls closed on Sunday evening.