MINSK, Belarus — On election day, the fun and games ended. Now the question is: How far will the crackdown go?
What had been a remarkably open presidential election campaign in the former communist authoritarian state of Belarus came to an abrupt end once the polls closed.
President Alexander Lukashenko stormed to a victory reminiscent of the Soviet days. According to the country’s central election commission, the Belarus leader collected just under 80 percent of the vote, with some 90 percent of the electorate voting. His closest competitor, Andrei Sannikov, won just 2.5 percent.
These figures seemed somewhat skewed. In speaking to voters in the capital, I encountered only two people — both retirees — who voted for Lukashenko. The rest overwhelmingly said they voted against him. Young professionals and students said they cast their votes for the opposition, often citing their fatigue with Lukashenko and his isolationist policies.
“I voted for Sannikov,” said Lyudmila, a 30-something economist who declined to give her last name, after voting with her husband. “I want to be a part of Europe.”
Western election observers also cast doubts on the vote’s accuracy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that the election was seriously flawed — starting with the pro-government slant on state television and in the composition of the election committees across the country, and ending with the vote count.
Observers assessed the vote count as bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations,” said an OSCE statement. “In many cases, observers were restricted and did not have a real opportunity to observe the counting.”
“In some cases the figures recorded in the results of polling station protocols were different upon arrival at the Territorial Election Commissions,” it added.
(An election observation mission from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States said that the elections were valid. Relations between Lukashenko and the Russian leadership had recently deteriorated, but one week before the elections, the sides reached two key agreements. The CIS observer mission is the strongest indication to date that Moscow and Minsk have returned to their traditional brotherly relations.)
Lukashenko put an even more definitive stamp on the proceedings however by demonstrating that the season for open public criticism of his rule was now officially over.
Shouting “Belarus lives!” and “Go!” — a demand for Lukashenko to leave — scores of protesters gathered on Minsk’s October Square Sunday night after the polls closed to demonstrate against what they said was a fraudulent contest from the very beginning. The crowd was perhaps more than 10,000 strong — a large figure in Belarus.
“We are going to the square so that there will be new elections,” said Vladimir Neklyaev, another of the main opposition candidates as he voted on Sunday. “We will demand new elections, because with Lukashenko free elections are not possible.”
The crowd then marched down Minsk’s main Independence Avenue to a central square in front of the main government building. There, some of the protesters tried to break into the building but were repulsed by troops inside. A short while later, riot troops descended and emptied the square of the crowds.
The scene in Minsk was reminiscent of the last time Belarus held presidential elections in 2006. Then, demonstrators erected tents and camped out on October Square for a short period, until authorities violently dispersed them.
But the government did not stop at driving away the demonstrators. Those candidates who were present on the square were arrested, as were a number of their supporters. Some were beaten. Through the night came reports that other campaign members had been taken into custody.
The United States and European Union condemned the crackdown.
"We call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protestors who were detained on Dec. 19 and 20," said a White House statement. "The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission Dec. 20."
Neklyaev did not even make it to the demonstration. As he was leading a column to the first square, unknown assailants attacked him. Reports varied that they were riot police or men in masks and civilian uniforms. The candidate was badly beaten and taken to the hospital. Then, as he lay there, unidentified men entered his room and took him away, his wife said.
Lukashenko was unapologetic and said that the opposition got what it deserved, claiming that they were planning widespread violence. He also defended how the elections were conducted and dismissed the OSCE’s criticisms.
“It’s difficult to imagine what else Belarus could have done in order to fulfill some kind of democratic standards,” he told a audience today in the city’s main concert hall.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the chain of events and to correct the spelling of a name.