By Tom Balmforth
Even Though Thousands Took to the Streets of Minsk to Protest Lukashenko's Reelection, No Revolution is Forthcoming for the Time Being
The opposition now jailed, a defiant President Alexander Lukashenko hit back at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)'s scathing election verdict on Monday. With Lukashenko re-elected for a fourth term following a landslide victory, EU ties appeared set to hit old lows, leaving Belarus to the mercies of powerful neighbor Russia. The decapitated opposition, six presidential candidates of which were beaten and jailed in Sunday's protests, will struggle to rally again this evening, against what it says are rigged elections.
MINSK, Belarus/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 elections got to do with the elections?" Lukashenko, visibly angry, asked journalists Monday. "They wanted to get the picture and they got it," he said. Police made 631 arrests, he said.
Preliminary results show that the mustachioed ex-state farm boss took 79.7 percent of the vote, 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."
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," said Lukashenko.
Thousands of Belarusians gathered in ten-below-zero temperatures late Sunday, until some protestors tried to storm the Parliament building provoking a brutal Interior Ministry troop response, as frosty mist swirled around the statue of Lenin on Independence Square. "We tried to call out someone from the Election Commission to come down for negotiations, but no one came out, said 52-year-old protestor Alexei Yurashevich from Minsk. "The young ones tried to get in and the riot police beat them. Now they're driving us out:I didn't vote in these elections. They're a joke," he said.
"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 Nekliaev, a 64-year-old poet and presidential candidate, was taken into police custody from the hospital late last night, despite wounds to the head from being 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, who has been in power since 1994.
The EU had reached out to neighboring Belarus ahead of the elections, hoping to coax the country famously called the "last dictatorship in 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 the 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.
But analysts point to crucial yet lacking agreement over the cost of Russian gas sent to Belarus as a potential flaring point in relations between the Kremlin and Lukashenko, who has shown himself a master of playing off East against West during his 16-year-long reign. Russia, meanwhile, has its eye on Belarus' three top oil refineries, which it uses to turn a profit by re-exporting cheap Russian crude to Europe. Moreover, Moscow will pressure Lukashenko to open up the Belarusian market, 70 percent owned by the state, to hungry Russian investment.
Not only did Russia demonstrate that it is no longer willing to bankroll Belarus' economy, but the key Druzhba oil pipeline may be turned off in around five years, posing serious problems for Lukashenko, said Jana Kobzova, a Belarus expert for the London-based European Council for Foreign Relations.
Indeed, 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 (IMF) in November found "serious vulnerabilities" in the economy.
Opposition turnout on Independence Square last night, estimated at around 10,000, was way short of the crowds hoping to emulate Ukraine's Orange Revolution by camping out on Kiev's Independence Square to protest the result of the elections. "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 have said they will go to Independence Square again tonight at six p.m., but little unrest is expected.
For the time being the opposition, which failed to unite behind a single candidate as back in 2006, showed itself as weak and fragmented in these elections as well. "Belarus cannot sustain its defiant course indefinitely, but while there is enough cake to go around for the political elites, revolution or serious structural reform is not in the cards," said Kobzova.