Lauren Frayer Contributor
Government agents in Belarus have hauled off hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets protesting the disputed election victory of their president, dubbed Europe's " last dictator" for his 16-year iron-fist rule over the former Soviet republic.
The country's election commission announced late Sunday that incumbent Alexander Lukashenko had won nearly 80 percent of the vote, handing him a fourth term in the office he's held since 1994. But opposition candidates complained of vote-rigging, and thousands rioted last night in the capital Minsk's central Independence Square.
Hundreds of people have been arrested since then, including some who tried to storm Parliament. At least six of the nine candidates who ran for president against Lukashenko are also in custody, and some of them were beaten by plainclothes police, the BBC reported. The New York Times said its reporter and photographer were among those beaten, but they weren't seriously injured.
Asked about possible protests on Sunday, Lukashenko, 56, told Deutsche Welle: "Don't worry, nobody will go out into the street."
But it turns out they did, by the thousands. Raw video posted on YouTube shows rioters smashing windows of government buildings before security forces wielding plastic shields fan out to guard the buildings. An older woman, bundled up against the cold and in tears, screams at police in vain.
Chants of "Get out!" and "Long live Belarus!" echoed through the crowd, which The Wall Street Journal said amounted to as many as 20,000 people. An opposition candidate who was injured in protests was then taken away from a hospital by unidentified men, his wife told the paper.
Under Lukashenko, Belarus has suffered a crackdown on independent media, as the president sought to eliminate political opposition and embolden his secret police. About 70 percent of the country's economy is under state control.
"We are especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil society activists," the U.S. Embassy in Minsk said today in a statement. The Polish and German foreign ministries also condemned the crackdown.
But there was no official word from Russia, with whom Lukashenko is strongly allied.
Lukashenko put down similar protests in 2006, after his previous re-election. But those rallies were much smaller. Opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov said he's not surprised that these protests were bigger than the last ones.
"So many people are fed up with this dictatorship and have gone out into the streets to protest against this play which they call elections," he said, according to Deutsche Welle. "This is more or less what I had expected would happen."
But other Belarusians said they didn't believe allegations of vote-rigging and actually appreciate Lukashenko's domineering style of rule.
"This president has done so much good: Roads have been built, the city has started to look better," Alina Gurinovich, a 37-year-old accountant, told the Journal. She said she voted for Lukashenko. "I like Belarus the way it is -- peaceful, quiet and stable."
Still others said the election violence, whoever was to blame, put their country's future in jeopardy.
"It was horrible," student Tatyana Molosh told the Times, describing Sunday's protests. "I was barely able to get out. From one side the police were moving in, and then they came in from the other side.
"But, you know what the most frightening thing is?" she asked. "I am 25 years old and I have to build a future and a family in this country, and I see no future. This is the saddest thing."