- 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.

Yegor Sozaev-Gujev, a reporter for the Moscow-based LifeNews.ru, said he was beaten during the protests.

“Three of them took me; I’m sure they were KGB officers,” said Mr. Gujev. “I showed my press credentials. He then hit me twice in the legs and the neck with a club. I pushed back with my hands and run away. Thank God I was not hurt. Protesters saved me and my photographer.”

More than 1,000 international observers from various groups were in Belarus at the time of the election. About 6,000 polling stations were scattered throughout the country for a population of 10 million.

Some of those arrested Sunday could face up to 15 years in prison for “organizing mass disturbances.” Officials announced the government will investigate the activity of the protesters.

For several hours after the elections, Internet service and mobile networks were down. Key sites like Facebook and Gmail were blocked.

“The online community in Belarus has been bracing itself for anticipated postelectoral restrictions of Internet, but today’s disruption is a surprise for a regime that was consciously attempting to present itself as more pluralistic,” Freedom House Director of Internet Freedom Robert Guerra said.

“To those who were left with the impression from various Western news reports that today’s vote in Belarus was a liberalizing step, the unfortunate set of facts we are now seeing tells a very different story.”

The observers deployed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) to monitor the presidential election in Belarus presented its preliminary postelection statement at a news conference on Monday in Minsk.

Observers with a Florida-based group contend they saw no violations. Mikhail Morgulis, chairman of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation, who consults the various governments on spiritual matters says it is difficult for those in the West to understand the political and social dynamics in Belarus.

“A majority of the people in Belarus receives substantial assistance from the government, and the older people would like to keep what they have and not believe in a dream of a better future,” said Mr. Morgulis. “They’ve learned from former generations it is better to have a little than to have nothing. Many are afraid of change.”

This isn’t the first time Belarusians have cried foul. In 2006, during the last presidential elections, opposition leaders were jailed and protests were forcefully broken up.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide