Belarus opposition, president play war of nerves

By Oleg Shchedrov 1 hour, 42 minutes ago

MINSK - Hundreds of Belarussian protesters rallied for a fourth day on Wednesday in a risky war of nerves with President Alexander Lukashenko, whose re-election they denounce as fraudulent.

The opposition candidate beaten in Sunday polls has urged his supporters camping out at a central Minsk square to take part in a new huge protest on Saturday to demand a rerun.

But he conceded rallies were not enough to topple the 51-year-old former state farm director who pursues Soviet-style policies at home but is genuinely popular.

"I do not think that such a protest can unseat a dictator," Alexander Milinkevich said in a visit to October Square, where clusters of mainly young people gathered.

Saturday's rally, which marks the independence day of a short-lived Belarussian republic in 1918, was meant to show that Belarussians were wakening to alternative voices, he said.

The protests, unprecedented for ex-Soviet Belarus, where the security service usually cracks down quickly on dissent, started on Sunday after Lukashenko was announced the winner of a poll branded by independent monitors as neither free nor fair.

Lukashenko, criticized by the opposition and the West for his 12-year Soviet-style rule, won with an official vote tally of 82.6 percent. Milinkevich, who was second with 6 percent of the vote, called the poll fraudulent.

Hundreds of protesters, expected to be boosted again by thousands of supporters in the evening, maintained an overnight vigil and a day watch at the square. Many of them were puzzled by the tolerance of authorities.

"Frankly, I am surprised (the authorities) have not crushed the protest yet," Galina, a 21-year-old student, said.

Initial fears of a possible crackdown eased after riot police mostly disappeared from nearby streets where they had been stationed on Tuesday. But uncertainty about Lukashenko's plans refueled concerns of protesters.

Yuri, a 21-year-old student who spent the night at the rally, said police had warned his comrades to stay away.

"We told policemen that we will be here until the 25th," Yuri said, referring to the planned rally. "'You will not survive until then', the cops replied."

"'You do not know what will happen on the 24th', they said," he added. "It looks like something is simmering in the pot."

A top police official later gathered reporters at the scene of the protest to tell them that no crackdown was planned.

But tensions rose again after about 100 Lukashenko supporters, mostly pensioners, crept into the square trying to engage protesters in a debate about Belarus's future.

Some analysts say Lukashenko's tolerance may be the result of pressure from key ally Russia, which does not want to upset President Vladimir Putin 's presidency in the G8 group of leading democracies with violence in its neighbor.

"There have been reports that Putin called Lukashenko ahead of the vote and warned him that the use of force was unacceptable," said Yaroslav Romanchuk of Strategy think tank.

The election result has set the United States and Western Europe at odds with Russia. Washington, echoing the findings of international monitors, has accused Lukashenko of intimidating opponents. Moscow has congratulated him.

The protest has had strong echoes of the highly organized 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in neighboring Ukraine. But there has been no sign of the demonstration reaching the same scale.

Lukashenko, whose rule is associated in Belarus with relative stability, is popular at home and some analysts suggested that he played the game to score political points.

"Lukashenko, who can dissolve the rally any time, is keen to show he is not afraid of the opposition," Oleg Manayev, the head of independent Institute of Social and Political Studies said.