Lukashenko defiant as EU ties set to sour

By Tom Balmforth

The opposition now jailed, defiant Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko hit back at the OSCE's scathing election verdict on Monday, while EU ties appeared set for old lows leaving Belarus to the mercies of powerful neighbor Russia.

The decapitated opposition, which saw six of its presidential candidates beaten and jailed in Sunday protests, will struggle to rally again against what it says are rigged elections.

The OSCE election monitor is calling for the government to "account" for its "heavy-handed" arrest of hundreds of protestors in fierce clashes also condemned by the EU and the United States.

"What have the events after the elections got to do with the elections," Lukashenko, visibly angry, told journalists Monday. "They wanted to get the picture and they got it."

Police made 631 arrests, he said.

Preliminary results show the mustachioed ex-state farm boss took 79.7 percent of the vote in Sunday's elections, while the OSCE said yesterday's elections were marred by a "flawed" vote count despite "some specific improvements."

"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," said Tony Lloyd, who has led the short-term OSCE observer mission.

"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," Lloyd said on Monday.

Lukashenko, who extends his iron-fisted grip on power for another five years, dismissed the findings as "amoral."

"I've looked at [the OSCE report]. But it doesn't correspond with what took place at the elections," Lukashenko said.

Thousands of Belarusians gathered in ten-below temperatures late on Sunday until some protestors tried to storm Parliament provoking a brutal Interior Ministry troop response as frosty mist swirled around the statue of Lenin on Independence Square.

"As long as my heart is beating in my chest, I will do my best for the opposition," said a 72-year-old woman, who was selling copies of Narodnaya Volya, the underground opposition paper published three times a week. "At least we had three hours of freedom tonight."

Vladimir Nekliav, a 64-year-old poet, was taken into custody from hospital late on Sunday night despite wounds to the head from when he was cudgeled by police on his way to the rally.

"No one can reproach me for my actions. If I allowed the opposition to act, no one would understand me," said Lukashenko, in power since 1994.

Russian onside, EU off

The EU had reached out to neighbor Belarus ahead of elections hoping to coax the country famously called the "last dictatorship of Europe" away from Russia.

But relations now look set to return to old lows, driving the post-Soviet nation of 9.6 million into Russia's fold, especially after Moscow mended stormy ties with Lukashenko by handing Belarus' ailing command economy a $4 billion oil deal a fortnight ago.

Russia's official response to elections is still pending, although the CIS monitoring mission called the elections "democratic."

"We have good relations with Russia, even excellent relations with it... That's not even up to me. God gave us this," Lukashenko said on Monday.

Moscow sees Belarus as a buffer against NATO and EU expansion.

Ailing economy

But analysts point to the crucial yet lacking agreement over the cost of Russian gas to Belarus as a possible flaring point in relations between the Kremlin and Lukashenko, who has shown himself a master at playing off East against West during his 16-year reign.

Analysts say Lukashenko could find himself in a tight situation as he tries to steer the unreformed post-Soviet economy, heavily reliant on Russian subsidies, in the next five years.

The International Monetary Fund found "serious vulnerabilities" in the Belarusian economy in November.

Opposition turnout on Independence Square last night, estimated at around 10,000, was miles short of the crowds that gathered on Kiev's Independence Square in 2004 during Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

"There will be no revolution or criminality here in Belarus," Lukashenko said of the opposition, many of whom have been cast as dangerous radicals on state television.

Protestors said earlier they would gather on Independence Square tonight at 6 pm (16:00 GMT), but little unrest is expected.


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