Lukashenko clears last legal hurdle in Belarus vote

Mar 23, 2006 - By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - The opposition in Belarus challenged President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election on Thursday, saying authorities had "raped the minds" of voters, but officials dismissed the complaints and endorsed the results.

Western countries, critical of Lukashenko's Soviet-style rule, have joined the opposition in branding as fraudulent the poll which gave him 82.6 percent of the vote on Sunday.

His closest rival, Alexander Milinkevich, got 6.1 percent.

Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations urged authorities to release scores of opposition activists they said were arrested after the poll.

The European Union said it was considering imposing visa sanctions on those responsible for any vote-rigging, extending a ban which has covered six officials since 2004, though it was unclear whether this might include Lukashenko himself.

Security forces routinely disperse protests in Belarus, but have allowed up to 10,000 protesters to stay in a Minsk square since the vote. An opposition rally is scheduled for Saturday.

Another opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin, who came third with 2.2 percent of the vote, was allowed by the Central Election Commission to contest the returns.

"The presidential election was unconstitutional, unfair and does not conform to Belarussian laws," he told the commission.

"There was mass fraud and irregularities. Society has been infected by a malignant cancer of fear. The authorities have raped the minds of our people."

Commission members rejected his call for a re-run of the vote in September and Kozulin stormed out of the meeting.

"None of the arguments presented were of a serious nature and do not stand up to criticism," commission head Lidiya Yermoshina said.


Commission secretary Nikolai Lazovik said Lukashenko's victory was underscored by a record turnout of 92.9 percent.

"Our citizens' reasonable response to outside pressure and calls to go into the street was to turn up at polling stations," he said.

Several hundred activists, mostly students, pressed on with protests for a fifth day, waving the banned national red-and-white flag at a makeshift tent camp in October Square. Their numbers swelled to about 3,000 in the evening.

In Vienna, a statement issued by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, OSCE Chairman-in-Office, said over 200 arrests had been made in the three days after the vote.

"The Belarussian authorities must immediately put an end to the persecution of their opponents," De Gucht said.

Adrian Severin, a U.N. rapporter on Belarus, urged Belarus "to bring all violations of freedom of expression and of the right of peaceful assembly to an immediate end."

Milinkevich, in an internet conference on U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, said the protests would continue "as long as they are having an effect. And the are having an effect as every evening a few more people come out to the square."

The Belarussian 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.

Despite authoritarian rule that has made him a pariah in the West, Lukashenko, a 51-year-old former farm director, is genuinely popular in his country of 10 million. He tells voters he has provided relative political and economic stability.