- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

MINSK, Belarus — More than 10,000 opposition supporters gathered in Minsk’s main square last night, defying government threats to denounce an expected victory for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in yesterday’s presidential election.

“We will demand that this election be recognized as invalid, including by international organizations,” leading opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich told the crowd as it chanted “Freedom” and “Long Live Belarus” in a billowing snowstorm.

“They say we want a revolution. But we want only fair and honest elections without cheating,” Mr. Milinkevich told reporters in October Square. “We have already achieved a colossal victory. People have overcome their fear. Our objective is new and fair elections.”

The crowd roared and screamed “Liar” when a video screen on the square showed a live statement from the head of the Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, calling the vote a success. She later said partial results indicated an overwhelming victory for Mr. Lukashenko.

Exit polls conducted by pro-government organizations showed Mr. Lukashenko getting more than 80 percent of the vote. The election commission said voter turnout was 87.8 percent.

Hundreds of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were on hand to monitor the vote and were expected to issue a severely critical report today.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled this ex-Soviet republic since 1994, had promised to thwart demonstrators, warning that his forces would “wring their necks as one would with a duck.” But the hundreds of riot police kept a low profile and allowed the demonstration to proceed.

The opposition is hoping to recreate the waves of protests that led to peaceful revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.

Opposition leaders said the rally yesterday was the largest opposition gathering in the capital since Belarus gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The crowd began to thin after a few hours, but Mr. Milinkevich called on protesters to return to the square tonight.

“This is incredible. Nobody knew how many people we were going to be able to gather, but now it looks like there is a chance for freedom,” said Alexander Dobrovolsky, the deputy chairman of the United Civic Party, one of a coalition of political parties that supported Mr. Milinkevich’s candidacy.

“We had to live with this president for 12 years, and it’s time to leave him in the past,” said 23-year-old protester Kirill, who was afraid to give his last name.

“I have been to the United States and to England, and I have seen how people live there. I know what’s going on in the world … We’ve had enough.”

Members of the crowd waved traditional red-and-white national flags that have been banned under Mr. Lukashenko in favor of the country’s Soviet-era emblem. Many also waved flags showing a bison against a blue background, the symbol of opposition youth group Zubr (Bison).

Mr. Lukashenko and his secret police, still known by their Soviet-era acronym KGB, mounted a campaign of intimidation ahead of the vote, saying protesters face terrorism charges punishable by life imprisonment or even execution.

More than 300 opposition activists were jailed in the run-up to the vote. Hundreds more were threatened, expelled from universities or lost their jobs.

Despite the repression, Mr. Lukashenko remains popular because he has maintained stability and ensured that pensions and state wages are paid on time.

Western countries, especially the United States, have openly supported the opposition, with the Bush administration labeling Mr. Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator.” Washington and the European Union have vowed to boost sanctions against Belarus if the election is declared unfair.

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