Lukashenko lauds police, OSCE bashes vote

MINSK, Belarus, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko praised security authorities for arresting protesters and opposition politicians after clashes erupted following demonstrations against the result of the country's presidential election.

"What (protesters) tried to carry out in Minsk yesterday is not democracy, it is banditism," Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Belarus' state-run news agency BelTA. "Vandals and thugs lost their human faces. They went utterly wild."

The BBC reports that Belarusian police arrested at least six presidential candidates, some of them after they had been beaten, allegedly by police. The European Union and the United States have condemned the violence.

According to official results announced Monday, Lukashenko won 79.7 percent of the ballot in Sunday's election and a fourth term in office.

The opposition claims the vote was rigged and at least 10,000 anti-Lukashenko protesters took the streets in central Minsk but were dispersed by riot police. Authorities said that a group of protesters tried to storm the government building.

In a Monday statement on the elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced the ballot count, saying observers assessed "almost half of vote counts ... as bad or very bad."

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

"The counting process lacked transparency," he said in a statement. "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."

Opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyaev (who won 1.8 percent of the vote) was forcibly taken from a Minsk hospital where he was being treated with head injuries after he had been badly beaten by police who broke up a rally staged by some 200 of his supporters, the BBC reports.

Another presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, was arrested on his way to the doctor after he had been beaten by police, German news Web site Spiegel Online reports.

Authorities detained his wife, a journalist for Russian newspaper Nowaja Gaseta, while she was being interviewed by a Russian radio station on events in Belarus. Several news outlets report that opposition Web sites have been shut down.

The situation in Minsk threatens to derail what has been a careful rapprochement between Belarus and the West following Lukashenko's fallout with the Kremlin.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, loosened his grip in recent months to please Western leaders and observers had lauded him for freeing up the election process. In an unprecedented move, the state-owned television aired a discussion among the opposition candidates.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called for restraint and demanded the release of the detained opposition leaders.

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk on Monday strongly condemned the violence against protesters.

"We are particularly concerned about the excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates, and violence against journalists and civil society," the embassy said in a statement.

Ahead of the elections, Marie-Lena May, an expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin think tank, said there are only two options if Belarus wants to make sustainable economic and social progress.

"Belarus has to either implement serious reforms to be competitive on the global market or it has to turn toward Russia and their common Customs Union which was established at the beginning of 2010," May wrote in an analysis. "The former will also entail rapprochement with the EU and thus democratization and could result in a defeat of Lukashenko in subsequent presidential elections. The latter could lead to a union under Russia's leadership. Yet, the information war between Minsk and Moscow shows that a Russian-Belarusian union will only be possible without Lukashenko."

If May's analysis is right, then Lukashenko, despite all the force, will have a tough time remaining in power much longer.


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