By Gennady Kesner and Benedikt von Imhoff Dec 20, 2010, 16:09 GMT
Minsk - The polls had hardly closed and the violence escalated in authoritarian Belarus. By midnight police were breaking heads, the KGB was arresting opposition activists en masse - and Europe's 'last dictator' had been re-elected to office.
Aleksander Lukashenko, the former collective farm boss whose grip on the former Soviet republic appears firmer than ever, kept his promise on Sunday and turned his riot police loose on thousands of demonstrators and innocent passesr-by in the streets of Minsk.
Belarusian journalist Irina Chalip screamed shrilly into her microphone, as armed men wearing the gold-and-black eagle emblem of a picked special troops unit clubbed her down to the snow.
'The police are beating me,' cried the known well-known reporter in the middle of a live interview. Her station lost its feed seconds later.
Heavily armed security forces put in their brutal attack near the seat of government, where hundreds of protesters had been chanting anti-Lukashenko slogans and others waving European Union banners.
Screams and the crash of glass shattering into shards echoed through the freezing cold winter night. Someone ignited a smoke bomb, and the panicked crowd surged to and fro.
An estimated 20,000 people had descended on Minsk's central squares to protest Lukashenko's re-election, charging he won it through massive vote fraud.
'We want the truth!' they shouted. 'Long live Belarus!'
Broken by the police phalanx, the demonstrators, some bleeding, beat a retreat across muddy cobblestones slick with slushy snow. Riot police followed, bludgeoning those too slow to escape.
A slip, a flurry, a stick to the head and a burly officer had given human rights activist Natalia Radinat a concussion.
'They are thrashing every one, elderly, women, teens, and of course the men,' reported Dmitriy Tarchov, a Russian TV reporter.
The police by the time their charge ended had swept Minsk's centre clear of demonstrators and had arrested seven of the nine opposition politicians who had run against Lukashenko, and thousands of their supporters.
KGB officers and uniformed cops followed up through the night and Monday morning, raiding offices and homes across the country. Christians, ethnic Poles, youth groups - the entire gamut of Lukashenko opponents was hit, according to news reports.
More than 2,000 anti-Lukashenko activists, their friends, relatives and people just caught accidentally in the dragnet were in police custody by midday, according to opposition officials.
But even a Sunday night collective beating of Lukashenko's enemies, the likes of which had not been seen in Belarus in years, has not united the country's badly-splintered opposition.
The radicals want to sweep away the regime, if necessary, with violence. The moderates argue for a dialogue, and some criticise the street protests as rash and violent.
'Now we all will suffer, those in power will take advantage of this,' said presidential nominee Yaroslav Romanchuk.
The day after, Lukashenko's Soviet-efficient Minsk city government did its job. The streets of the capital looked as if nothing had happened. All the wreckage from the night's fighting had disappeared, and Lukashenko's government appointees quickly returned to business as usual.
Lidia Eremoshina, head of Belarus' Central Election Commission, told reporters she felt Lukashenko's re-election was perfectly proper and fairly achieved.
Speaking at a press conference, she went on with almost - but not quite - a straight face to declare her 'deepest wish' for Christmas would be a gift in the form of a Organization of Security and Cooperation Europe declaration of her country's election processes as free and fair.
Unfortunately for Eremoshia, the Christmas Grinch for Belarus this year turned out to be a German diplomat, who displayed no sense of humor at all during his own Monday meeting with Minsk reporters.
Belarus' Sunday vote returning Aleksander Lukashenko to office was undemocratic and nowhere near the standards of European democracy, said Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, head of the OSCE observer mission.