Miriam Elder in Moscow - The Guardian, Monday 20 December 2010
Opposition candidate beaten and detained as riots follow claim that 'dictator' Lukashenko won 79% of vote
Police in Minsk tackle demonstrators who oppose the Belarus election results. A pro-government exit poll gave President Alexander Lukashenko 79.1% of the vote. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters
Riot police beat back thousands of opposition supporters who tried to storm the main government building in Belarus last night in protest at what they claim was large-scale vote rigging in yesterday's presidential election.
As protests in Minsk against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko turned violent, the opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, 64, was reported to have been taken to hospital unconscious. Andrei Sannikov, another opposition candidate, was beaten and detained.
Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed into Minsk's central square after a pro-government exit poll claimed Lukashenko had won 79.1% of the vote. Polls cited by the nine candidates challenging Lukashenko indicated he had failed to win the 50% needed to hold on to power without a second round.
Video showed protesters waving flags and chanting "Lukashenko, no! Belarus, yes!" as they marched through Minsk toward the central election commission and the seat of government.
Several journalists, including a photographer for the New York Times and two cameramen for Russia Today, were among those injured.
Lukashenko, described as Europe's last dictator, has ruled the country since 1994, brokering no dissent. A US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this month said he "intends to stay in power indefinitely".
For much of the year, Lukashenko appeared to be easing his grip on the former Soviet republic, as he flirted with the west amid deteriorating relations with his long-standing sponsor, Russia. A visit to Moscow earlier this month, boosted by the signing of preferential trade deals, sealed his tilt towards the Kremlin.
The European Union has offered Belarus a €3bn (£2.5bn) aid package if the elections are declared free and fair. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitored the elections for the first time.
The opposition called a second rally for 6pm (3pm GMT) today. Similar protests after Lukashenko's third election in 2006 also turned violent and lasted for days, but the results were not overturned.
Lukashenko reportedly dispatched riot police and armoured vehicles to Minsk days before the vote. As polls closed yesterday, internet sites, including major email carriers such as Gmail and Yahoo, and social media sites Facebook and Twitter, were blocked. Opposition candidates complained that dozens of their supporters had been detained.
Lukashenko had promised to deal harshly with the opposition. "I don't conduct any dialogue with bandits and saboteurs," he said after casting his vote, news agencies reported from Minsk.
Human rights activists have long accused Lukashenko of widespread violations. Oleg Bebenin, a leading opposition journalist, died in mysterious circumstances before the elections. Colleagues and friends question the official ruling of suicide.
Lukashenko has so far managed to avoid the fate of similar long-time leaders in neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia, pushed out earlier this decade amid a wave of popular protests.
The OSCE has never ruled a Belarussian election free and fair. The opposition said early voting, by 23% of the 7 million registered electors, was marked by widespread ballot stuffing. The central election commission said turnout was 90%.
SOURCE The Guardian