Belarus poll sets U.S., Russia at odds

By Olena Horodetska

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko swept back into office on Monday in an election that independent observers condemned as flawed and which triggered a second day of protests from opposition supporters.

Several thousand people, defying warnings by Lukashenko's state security forces, massed in a central square after an appeal by opposition rival Alexander Milinkevich, who called for a re-run of the vote.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994 and a bogeyman for the West because of his Soviet-style policies at home, defended his re-election -- officially by a tally of 82.6 percent of the vote -- as "honest and democratic".

He told a news conference that a pro-Western revolution, like those that swept away entrenched establishments in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia, had been stopped in its tracks.

But the outcome, never in doubt given the control Lukashenko exerts over the media and all aspects of political life, put Washington and Moscow at variance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom the arrival in power of pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine has highlighted Russia's declining influence in former Soviet territory, quickly congratulated Lukashenko.

"The results of the election testify to the fact that the voters trust in your course...," the Kremlin quoted Putin's message of congratulation as saying.

Within minutes, the United States, which last year described Lukashenko as "Europe's last dictator", denounced his victory and said the election had been conducted in a "climate of fear".

"We support the call for a new election," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.


In Minsk's October Square, Milinkevich told about 7,000 supporters -- smaller than Sunday's gathering -- that they faced a long haul with their protests.

"Be prepared to stay where you are. Our protest will be long," Milinkevich, credited with only six percent in the official count, told the demonstrators in freezing weather.

"We, free people of Belarus, will never recognise the election. They are afraid of us. Their power is based on lies."

Earlier, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a thumbs-down to the poll as neither free nor fair.

"The 19th March presidential election did not meet the required international standards for free and fair elections," said Alcee Hastings, a special coordinator for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission.

Belarussian democracy, he said, was "in its infancy".

"The arbitrary abuse of state power, obviously designed to protect the incumbent President, went far beyond acceptable practice," the OSCE, Europe's largest rights and security body, said in a statement.

The European Union said it would "very likely" extend sanctions -- probably further restrictions on travel for Belarussian officials rather than punitive economic measures.

The reaction from Washington and the EU clearly indicated there would be no change in Belarus's international isolation.

A U.S. official in Washington had earlier conceded that the United States had little sway over Lukashenko.

But the difference with Russia will bring fresh tension into relations between the former superpower rivals in a year when Russia is chairman of the Group of Eight club of rich nations.

Lukashenko renewed charges that his rivals had planned pro-Western revolts like those in ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia.

"Let me say that the revolution that so many people talked about and some were preparing, has failed and it could not be otherwise," he told a news conference.

Referring to Western support for his rivals, he said: "Despite the pressure and orders from outside, they couldn't break us."

Lukashenko said he was unworried about EU sanctions threats.

"Where else can we go?" he said. "I frankly can't understand how you can isolate a country located in the heart of Europe."