West decries violent Belarus election as 'seriously flawed'

Maria Danilova,Yuras Karmanau

Minsk, Belarus- The Associated Press

International observers and Western governments accused Belarus' strongman leader of using fraud and violence to remain in power after more than 16 years of repressive rule, saying Monday that President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election had been seriously flawed.

Seven of the nine candidates opposing Mr. Lukashenko were taken into custody, including one who witnesses said was beaten by government forces, then dragged from his hospital bed by men in plainclothes.

The country's election commission declared that Mr. Lukashenko got almost 80 per cent of the vote in a preliminary count, handing him a fourth term in office.

But the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the count in Sunday's vote was "bad or very bad" in half the country's precincts. It also strongly criticized the violent dispersal by riot police of a post-election protest rally. U.S. and European leaders criticized Mr. Lukashenko for a wave of violence directed at rival presidential candidates and their supporters in the hours after the election.

Mr. Lukashenko on Monday bristled at the criticism of how police handled the demonstration, saying it was beyond the OSCE election observers' mandate.

"What does what happened at night have to do with the election? The election was over," he said at a news conference.

Mr. Lukashenko's continuing grip on power makes Belarus one of the last relics of Soviet-style dictatorship, a nation of 10 million on the edge of Europe with overwhelming state control of politics, industry and media. The country's continuing repression has been an embarassment to the European Union, which offered 3 billion euros ($3.9-billion) in aid to Belarus if the elections were judged to be free and fair.

Despair and anger gripped many in the country on Monday.

"Lawlessness, dictatorship - what else can you call this?" said Natalia Pohodnya, waiting in the snow outside a Minsk jail where her son was being held after participating in a demonstration. "They are beating our kids!"

There were no signs of imminent unrest in Minsk's downtown of wide streets lined with Stalin-era buildings. The riot police had vanished by dawn.

The run-up to the election had raised a glimmer of hope that Mr. Lukashenko was relaxing his grip. The number of candidates was unprecedented, they were allowed comparative freedom to campaign and were even allotted time for debates on state media. Belarus had also passed some reforms in its election code.

But evidence of fraud before and during Sundays' vote drove tens of thousands of protesters into the streets at night to denounce alleged irregularities. Helmeted riot police bearing shields and swinging truncheons dispersed the protesters from near the main government building after some in the crowd broke windows and doors.

Police also arrested seven of the nine candidates opposing Mr. Lukashenko.

"A positive assessment of this election isn't possible," said the OSCE observer mission's head, Geert-Hinrich Ahrens.

One of the top opposition candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten in a clash with government forces as he tried to lead a column of supporters to the protest. He was taken to a hospital, but his aide said seven men in civilian clothing later wrapped Neklyayev in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away as his wife screamed.

Mr. Lukashenko, a 56-year old collective farm manager, has allowed no independent broadcast media, kept 80 per cent of industry under Soviet-style state control and suppressed opposition with police raids and pressure. His fiery populism and efforts to maintain a Soviet-era social safety net have kept him popular with the working class and the elderly.

But in recent years, he has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin, his main sponsor, as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends.

Mr. Lukashenko also had been working to curry favour with the West, releasing some political prisoners and making Belarus part of the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative. He has called for improved ties with the U.S., which in previous years he had cast as an enemy.

However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus - a concession worth an estimated $4-billion a year.

And the tainted vote and violent dispersal of opposition protests make any further rapprochement with the West unlikely.

"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better. And, in particular, I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists," said Tony Lloyd, one of the mission leaders.

The U.S. Embassy said that Washington "strongly condemns all election day violence in Belarus." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that "it's not acceptable to harass, beat or arrest opposition candidates and their supporters who want to exert their right to freedom of expression." Poland's Foreign Ministry also condemned the crackdown, saying in a statement that "the brutality of the security forces is inadmissible." It appealed for the immediate release of the opposition candidates, saying their arrests raise "particular concern."

"At this moment I don't know where my husband is," Mr. Neklyayev's wife told reporters. "I couldn't imagine that: They took him right from an emergency care unit as I was watching."

Also arrested was Andrei Sannikov, who was among those beaten outside the government building. Mr. Sannikov was the next-highest vote getter after Mr. Lukashenko, tallying 2.5 per cent, according to official figures.

The human rights centre Vesna said the total of 400 people were taken into custody Sunday. Interior Ministry spokesman Anatoly Kuleshov said organizers of mass disturbances could face up to 15 years in prison.

Also according to Vesna, police early Monday raided the office of the website for Charter 97, an opposition organization connected with Mr. Sannikov, and arrested its editor.

In previous elections, none of which were judged free and fair by Western observers, Mr. Lukashenko tallied 80 per cent or more.

In a notable diversion from the OSCE report, the observers' mission of the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States said it did not call the results into question. Despite recent tensions between Minsk and Moscow, Russia continues to see Belarus as a buffer with NATO.


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