More Cracks Evident Between Russia and West Over Belarus

By Sergei Blagov Correspondent

Moscow ( - Belarus warned the United States and European Union against interfering in its internal affairs, as unhappiness persists over last week's landslide election victory of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Russia welcomed the result, however, and declared the poll free and fair.

The Belarus Foreign Ministry in a statement accused the West of "wishful thinking" -- an apparent reference to earlier popular revolts that brought down pro-Moscow regimes in other former Soviet states, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

"If the United States and the E.U. respect our people, they must respect their choice," it said.

Lukashenko has been officially declared the winner of the March 19 election, securing a third term in office.

On Saturday, several thousand anti-government protestors were beaten by police who prevented them from marching to a police station.

The protestors were supporting members of the opposition detained after police broke up an unsanctioned opposition rally in the capital, Minsk, last Thursday.

The opposition is refusing to accept the election results and is demanding a rerun.

Belarus Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov said Sunday that main organizers of the unsanctioned protest would face criminal charges.

All key organizers, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, had been detained and would face criminal charges.

Naumov accused Kozulin of calling for a change of government by force and the "physical liquidation of the head of state."

At a weekend rally in a Minsk park, another former presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich announced the creation of a movement to free the country -- the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Belarus.

The U.S. condemned the violence against protesters and called for the immediate release of those detained "for expressing their political views."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on the authorities to refrain from further use of force and arrests.

The White House said Washington would impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions against Belarus officials "responsible for the recent electoral fraud and human rights abuses," including the president.

President Bush expressed support for those detained or assaulted in the protests, and praised "those who labor in the shadows to return freedom to Belarus."

The U.S. has called for an election rerun, while observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed the vote as "severely flawed."

The E.U., whose territory borders Belarus, voted to tighten sanctions on Lukashenko's regime as well.

But Moscow backed the Belarus leader. President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to Lukashenko, and observers from the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) declared the vote free and fair.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the police action in Minsk, saying that "protests like this have little chance of changing anything."

"These people spent several days on the square but we didn't understand what they were hoping for," he said, accusing the OSCE of inciting the protests.

"Unfortunately, we saw a situation where the OSCE observer mission began talking about illegitimacy well ahead of the elections with quite a bit of taking sides, thus playing a role of instigator," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003, Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in late 2004 and early 2005 and Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip revolution" last year all forced out governments accused of electoral fraud.