- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2010

MINSK, Belarus | Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared on Monday that he won Sunday’s election, which included a violent crackdown on reformists seeking an end to his authoritarian government.

The capital was calm Monday night in this state once aligned closely with Moscow but that has recently moved toward challenging Russian influence.

“What a disgrace,” Mr. Lukashenko said in criticizing oppositionists who took to the streets in protest of the election on Sunday. “They wanted to become presidents. What kind of president are you if you are whacked in the face, and you cry ‘blue murder’? Why are you howling? What kind of president are you? You should put up with it.”

On Sunday evening, chanting “free Belarus,” some 20,000 protesters gathered in the capital’s main Oktyabrskaya Square after the presidential elections of the landlocked nation once part of the Soviet Union. Demonstrators gathered in spite of Mr. Lukashenko’s stern warning that protesters would be punished.

In subzero temperatures, peaceful protesters listened to five opposition candidates denounce the election results alleging fraudulent activity. Thousands then packed the length of 10 city blocks marching to the Belarusian parliament in central Minsk, where glass doors were smashed. Anti-riot police, however, were inside, prepared for such an event, clubbing protesters before they could enter.

Mr. Lukashenko, who was joined by nine other candidates in the race, garnered 79.1 percent of the vote, while opposition candidate Grigor Kostusev won 4.2 per cent, according to the Minsk-based EcooM research center. Throughout the world, Belarus is considered the last remaining dictatorship in Europe.

Witnesses say Belarusian police brutally beat violent protesters, and many peaceful protesters as well. Along with hundreds of protesters, four presidential candidates were also arrested.

The foremost opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyayev, was one such candidate beaten and taken to a nearby hospital. Activists claim four plainclothed men wrapped Mr. Neklyayev in a blanket, taking him to an unknown location.

In a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Belarus, “the United States strongly condemns all election-day violence in Belarus. We are especially concerned over excessive use of force by the authorities, including the beating and detention of several presidential candidates and violence against journalists and civil-society activists.”

The statement said the United States was “alarmed that candidate [Vladimir Neklyayev] was forcibly taken from a Minsk hospital by unknown individuals and we urge his safe and immediate return.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned Belarusian authorities to exercise restraint and “not to harm, threaten or further detain those exercising their basic rights.”

Mr. Crowley backed the conclusions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the election. “We cannot consider the election results yesterday as legitimate,” he said on Monday.

“The biggest losers of yesterday’s bloody event are the people who peacefully demonstrated for a better life, for democracy and freedom,” said election observer Silver Meikar, a member of the Estonian parliament. “It was a disaster.”

Mr. Meikar said he observed a number of irregularities at polling stations Dec. 19 during his visits.

Dozens of international journalists were trapped in the lobby of Hotel Minsk, where police barricaded the front doors, not allowing them outside.

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