Belarus defiant as West threatens to review ties

by Valery Kalinovsky

MINSK (AFP) - Belarus on Thursday rejected Western criticism of its harsh crackdown after the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko as the European Union and the United States threatened to review ties with his authoritarian regime.

Belarus arrested more than 600 people on the night of December 19 after a massive rally gathered in central Minsk to protest presidential elections that Western observers said fell well short of democratic norms.

About 100 people have been set free since they were detained Sunday, mostly those sentenced to fines, Minsk police told Interfax Thursday.

A statement by European Union diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the immediate release of those detained, who include five of the nine challengers to Lukashenko and top journalists.

"Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus. The people of Belarus deserve better," they said.

"Without substantial progress in these areas, relations will not improve.

"It is against this background that we will be assessing the Government of Belarus?s actions to address the current situation and to take developments into account as we review our relations with Belarus."

Ties between the West and Lukashenko, once slammed by Washington as Europe's last dictator, had seen a gentle thaw in the months before the election as he made moves to steer his ex-Soviet state away from Russian influence.

British and German foreign ministries have also strongly criticised the crackdown, while Poland has gone as far as to say that Lukashenko may not have won the polls at all.

"According to sources we trust, Lukashenko did not win these elections," said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, adding that "he obtained well below 50 percent" in both the early vote and on the election day.

"Perhaps this is where the reason is hiding for a brutal and irrational reaction," Sikorski told Poland's TVN24 channel.

But the Belarussian foreign ministry on Thursday called the criticism an "initial, involuntary reaction".

"They are of a very emotional character, lacking a rational component," the ministry's spokesman Andrei Savinykh told journalists Thursday.

Sikorski's source of election results was "falsified data" that was "planted on the Internet" from one of the companies organising exit polls.

Meanwhile, the number of people facing criminal probes in Belarus over post-election protests has grown to 22, including a large proportion of the country's most prominent liberal activists and journalists.

The suspects include seven opposition candidates who challenged Lukashenko in the election, as well as their aides, other opposition activists, and opposition website editors.

All but two candidates are behind bars in a prison used by the Belarussian KGB. The remaining pair -- Rygor Kostusev and Dmitry Uss -- are both barred from leaving the country.

Lawyers have yet to see candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, who was severely beaten in Sunday's protests and was detained from the hospital by KGB officers, his lawyer Tamara Sidorenko told Euroradio.

Russia's ambassador to Minsk Alexander Surikov said Thursday that Lukashenko's victory was "expected" by Russia and even the opposition, who "understood that they cannot win, and attempted to carry out a 'yellow', 'orange' or whatever else (revolution)," Interfax reported.

"In terms of the number of detained people, over 600, that is an internal matter for Belarus," he said, adding that the opposition should have better organised the rally to avoid turning it into "hooliganism".

The popular uprising in Ukraine in 2004 that brought pro-Western politicians to power is known as the Orange Revolution.

According to preliminary results Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth term with nearly 80 percent of the vote, compared with 83 percent in 2006.


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