Lukashenko Shuns Criticism of Vote, Crackdown on Protests, Saying Country Needs 'No More Hare-Brained Democracy'
By JAMES MARSON in Minsk, Belarus, and RICHARD BOUDREAUX in Moscow
MINSK, Belarus-President Alexander Lukashenko declared Monday that his former Soviet republic needed "no more hare-brained democracy" after rivals at home and governments in the West accused him of using fraud and violence to secure re-election.
The ruler's comment, coupled with Sunday's disputed election, signaled the end of his tentative diplomatic outreach to the U.S. and European Union, leaving Belarus fewer options to ease its longstanding economic dependence on Russia.
Mr. Lukashenko was officially declared the winner with 79.7% of the vote after hundreds of riot police stormed Independence Square in central Minsk late Sunday, dispersing an estimated 20,000 protesters outside the main government building.
Many were beaten and at least four of the nine rival presidential candidates were arrested, their aides said.
The president said police detained 639 people, and the Interior Ministry said some face up to 15 years in prison for "organizing mass disturbances."
With its leaders jailed and some independent Internet media disrupted, the protest movement seemed to fizzle as quickly as it erupted.
But strong condemnation poured in from abroad.
The White House said it couldn't accept the election results as legitimate. It added that the use of "disproportionate force" against political activists marked "a clear step backwards on issues central to our relationship with Belarus."
The EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, urged Belarussian authorities to release the jailed opposition candidates at once. Poland and Lithuania, whose leaders were most eager to tug Belarus out of Russia's orbit with economic aid if the vote was judged to be fair, reacted with dismay.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the vote, reported "bad or very bad" ballot counting in half of the country's precincts. It said results recorded at precinct stations were altered in some cases before arriving at regional election headquarters. And it denounced the police action Sunday night as "heavy-handed."
"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," said Tony Lloyd, head of the OSCE observer mission.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled this country of 9.5 million people since 1994, responded angrily with a news conference on state television, punctuated by finger-wagging diatribes.
"We did everything they asked of us," the 56-year-old ruler said of the OSCE. He said its criticism of the police was beyond its mandate. "The election was over," he said.
He accused the protesters of "barbarism" and "banditry," and shut the door to compromise with political opponents who led the protests.
"That's it," he declared. "I warned you that if some commotion started, we'd have enough forces. Folks, you tangled with the wrong guy. I'm not going to hide in the basement. So let's be done with it. There will be no more hare-brained democracy. We won't allow the country to be torn to pieces."
Before the president spoke, the wife of opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev described how unknown men had nabbed him Sunday from a hospital bed where he was recovering from a beating on the head during the demonstration.
Olga Neklyayeva said the men locked her in a separate hospital room. Her husband's whereabouts were unknown, she said.
Mr. Lukashenko later said the 64-year-old candidate, a popular poet, had been detained and was being questioned by investigators.
Years of authoritarian rule by Mr. Lukashenko have limited Belarus's political opposition. It failed to unite behind a single candidate, and Sunday's protest gave way to internal bickering.
Belarus has enjoyed modest prosperity under Mr. Lukashenko thanks to oil- and gas-price subsidies from Russia. As those subsidies have dwindled in recent years, the Belarussian leader has courted the West to obtain loans from the International Monetary Fund and leverage with Moscow in bargaining over energy prices.
By giving rival candidates some freedom to campaign against him, Mr. Lukashenko appeared to signal a desire for closer cooperation with Europe. At the same time, he reached a deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev early this month that preserved at least $1.5 million in oil-price subsidies next year.
Mr. Medvedev called Sunday's election "an internal matter" for Belarus.