Belarus: Opposition Protesters Remain On Central Minsk Square

Some 200 demonstrators remain in central Minsk following an overnight vigil to protest official election results giving President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a third term in office. Opposition supporters braved the threat of police action to stage a second night of protests in the capital's October (Kastrychnitskaya) Square following the March 19 vote. Russia approved the election, but both the European Union and the United States said the ballot was neither free nor fair. The opposition is calling for a new vote. But it is uncertain what impact, if any, the public protest will have.

PRAGUE, March 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It was a scene reminiscent of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Crowds gathered in the Belarusian capital Minsk continued their protest against the country's presidential election, echoing the opposition's call for a new vote.

Today's rally came after an evening protest on October Square on March 20 of some 7,000 people. Several hundred protesters endured freezing temperatures on the square overnight, dancing and chanting to keep themselves warm.

It was the second consecutive nighttime protest following the March 19 vote, which saw incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka comfortably returned to his post for five more years. On the night of the vote, some 20,000 protesters gathered on October Square.

Suspiciously Large Margin

Lukashenka has kept a firm grip on the country's security forces and media since assuming control 12 years ago. Belarus has enjoyed relative stability under his reign, and few expected to see him lose.

But the gaping margin between him and his closest competitor -- opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who trailed him by nearly 77 percentage points -- provoked many pro-democracy supporters to claim election fraud.

"Belarusians are getting rid of their fear and they are revealing that they have dignity." -- Milinkevich

Demonstrators gathered in October Square called for new elections to be called in July. Many carried the white-and-red Belarusian national flags banned by Lukashenka in favor of a Soviet model. Supporters brought food and hot drinks, and some drivers blew their horns as they drove by in a sign of support.

The crowd is a tiny fraction of the 100,000 people that occupied Kyiv's Independence Square during the Orange Revolution in 2004. But opposition candidate Milinkevich told Reuters television this morning that the determination of the demonstrators is a testament to major changes under way in Belarus.

Security forces in Minsk have so far maintained a watchful but unaggressive stance. But a number of opposition activists have been reportedly arrested, many while attempting to deliver food to protesters. RFE/RL's Belarus Service cited a Milinkevich aide as saying that 108 activists have been arrested since last night. This figure could not be independently verified. Three Georgian nationals attending the rally were also detained.

International Criticism

International reaction to the vote has been largely critical. The European Union and Washington both condemned the election as highly irregular, and Washington has reiterated the call for a fresh vote.

The presidents of Ukraine and Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, respectively, have likewise criticized the vote and voiced their support for the Belarusian people.

To the Belarusian opposition, the two leaders are significant figures because of the popular uprisings that brought them both to power following elections criticized as fraudulent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, welcomed the official outcome of the vote and congratulated Lukashenka on his reelection. "The results of the elections point to voters' trust in your [Lukashenka's] policies and to the further growth of the prosperity of the Belarusian people," Putin said in a March 20 statement.

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service, with agency reports)