Belarus leader clinches new term, opposition cries foul

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko clinched a third term in office on Monday but opponents blasted the vote as an “unconstitutional seizure of power” and the European Union said stronger sanctions against the Belarussian leadership were likely.

Lukashenko was due to hold a news conference after the central election commission published preliminary results from Sunday’s election giving him 82,6% of votes cast. Opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich was creditied with six percent.

But Milinkevich promised fresh protests following a demonstration on Sunday evening in which about 10 000 people turned out in blizzard conditions.

“These were not elections in Belarus but an unconstitutional seizure of power. We consider the [new] Belarussian authorities will be illegitimate,” Milinkevich told a news conference, urging democratic countries not to recognise the vote.

The ballot was condemned by the 25-nation EU ahead of a report by election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“The climate of intimidation, the climate of hindering the opposition to do their work, is upsetting and this is what we will be discussing,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency.

The EU was “very likely” to bolster sanctions against Belarus, which currently include travel restrictions on top officials, said the EU’s External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Such criticism contrasted with fulsome praise for the election by state television, which portrayed Sunday’s protests as an attempted “light blue revolution”—a colour that has connotations of homosexuality in the former Soviet republic.

The criticism also put the West on a collision course with Russia, which has accused Western election observers of bias when it comes to countries that Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence.

“The election occurred against a background of unprecedented external pressure,” said the head of an observer team from the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States, Vladimir Rushailo.

“The biased claims and harsh evaluations, as well as warnings by several states ...
of possible political and economic measures, are seen by the CIS observers as an attempt to influence the election,” Rushailo said.

Lukashenko earlier promised to “break the neck” of any unrest “like a duckling’s”, prompting fears of a harsh crackdown.

The EU has stepped up pressure on Lukashenko and efforts to promote democracy here since the Belarussian leader secured constitutional changes in 2004 that abolished the two-term limit on holding the presidency.

The confrontation in Belarus, sandwiched between the EU, Russia and Ukraine, is part of a battle for influence between the West and Moscow in the former Soviet territories.

The United States’ reaction was expected to be no less critical than that of the EU. Washington has dubbed Belarus “Europe’s last dictatorship”.

Lukashenko called US President George Bush “the number one terrorist on the planet” as he cast his vote on Sunday.

The opposition would like to repeat people-power revolutions that have swept away entrenched regimes in other former Soviet republics—Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

Lukashenko enjoys support in large segments of Belarussian society for ensuring that pensions are paid on time and maintaining economic stability.

But hundreds of activists were arrested ahead of the election and some analysts expected further arrests once international attention has turned elsewhere.

“There’s certainly going to be a tightening up. I think things will get worse. This will become more and more a dictatorship,” a Western diplomat predicted. - AFP

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