Another Landslide for Belarus' Authoritarian Leader

July 7, 2008 - 7:17 PM

Moscow ( - Opponents are crying foul after Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory -- his third -- in elections Sunday.

Official exit polls said Lukashenko won 82 percent of the vote while his closest rival, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich received only 5.8 percent.

Central Election Committee head Lidia Eremoshina said official results would be announced by the end of the week. She put the turnout at 80 percent.

Observers from Russia, a close Lukashenko ally, on Sunday said the election were fair, but a mission from the Organization of Security and Cooperation (OSCE), which has been critical of the election, is due to release a report on Monday.

Thousands of opposition activists held an anti-government protest after polls closed, accusing the authorities of election fraud. Milinkevich, a physics professor, called on Belarussians to protest peacefully in central Minsk "with flowers."

Recent regime changes in other former Soviet states -- Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution," Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" and the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrgyzstan last year -- all began as protests against election results considered fraudulent.

All three countries have move away from Moscow's sphere of influence since the popular revolts. Belarus remains one of Russia's closest allies.

Wary of possible instability, Lukashenko ordered some 50,000 police deployed on emergency duty until the end of the month. The KGB security service announced that protests would be treated as "terrorism."

The president said at the weekend that ensuring stability and order was the main challenge for the authorities over the election period.

He claimed that some "freaks" were trying to stir up trouble in Belarus, warning "so far, we have been putting up with it. But as soon as they cross the line, we will take tough measures."

On the eve of the election, a report submitted by the Bush administration to Congress accused Lukashenko of personally profiting from arms exports to Iran, Sudan and Syria.

In response, Lukashenko told reporters after voting that the claims about illicit arms sales were "petty blackmail."

He also called President Bush "terrorist no. 1 on the planet."

Earlier, the KGB said foreigners disguised as tourists were trying to enter the country to disrupt the polls.

It said it had evidence of a U.S.-backed plot to change the regime. Plotters were being trained in Georgia and instructed by Americans to bomb four polling stations in Minsk during voting, security officials claimed.

Angered by the allegations against his country, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili urged the European Union not to recognize the election result, and to impose stricter political and economic sanctions against Lukashenko.

Saakashvili also urged the E.U. to give more support to the Belarus opposition.

The E.U. earlier asked Minsk to ensure a free and fair vote and threatened sanctions against anyone responsible for fraud.

The Belarus foreign ministry summoned E.U. ambassadors Saturday and complained about "interference" in the election.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, was first elected in 1994 and his current term ends in September. Often called Batka (Father), he had a strong lead in the race, according to official opinion polls.

Supporters credit him with turning Belarus from a subsidized entity during the Soviet era into a self-sufficient and stable economy, although he has kept some 80 percent of the economy under state control.

Unlike many ex-Soviet republics, Belarus does not have significant natural resources. Nonetheless, its GDP growth reached nine percent in 2005.

Relations with Russia remain tight. Two-thirds of Belarus exports go to Russia and Belarus also serves as an important transit route for Russian oil and natural gas exports to Europe. In exchange, Belarus receives energy supplies from Russia at significantly lower prices than other European states.

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