Status quo wins in Belarus

Lukashenko claimed a third term Monday in a vote opponents said was rigged.

A triumphant Alexander Lukashenko hailed his 82.6 percent victory in widely criticized presidential elections as "the dignified choice of the Belarussian people" Monday and dismissed allegations of fraud as "provocations" by a few Western-linked political forces.

"The revolution that has been talked about for so long, and which some people have been actively preparing, has failed in Belarus," Mr. Lukashenko told a press conference in Minsk's ornate Soviet-era Palace of the Republic. During the 2-1/2 hour meeting Lukashenko tussled - in a sometimes scornful tone - with critical questioners, and repeatedly blamed hostile outsiders and "anti-Russian forces" for Belarus's image in the West as "Europe's last dictatorship."

"These elections took place under conditions of unprecedented international pressure on Belarus, and aggressive antipopular behavior from the so-called opposition such as Belarus has never seen.... But our people have shown that they are master in their own home," he said.

Life appeared to be returning to normal in Belarus, a Russian-allied industrial republic of 10 million, after a bitter election campaign that saw the arrest of over 300 opposition activists, the closure of 16 independent newspapers, and shuttering of several foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations.

Many ordinary Belarussians pronounced themselves happy with the idea of a third term for Lukashenko, who is credited with reviving the country's shattered post-Soviet economy, raising wages, and paying pensions on time. "We're doing very well here, better than most other places," says Nikolai Komash, a pensioner who said he voted "proudly" for Lukashenko. "People should appreciate what they've got, and not go out on the public square to shout and complain."

But activists for opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich pledge to continue the protest movement they opened with a huge election-night rally in central Minsk and accuse Lukashenko of falsifying the vote to give himself a celestial majority while making the opposition appear nonexistent. Official results gave Mr. Milinkevich just 6 percent of the votes.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Milinkevich said Lukashenko's victory was "monstrously inflated." He described the election as an "unconstitutional coup" and Lukashenko as an "illegal and illegitimate" leader.

"I think it fully likely that Lukashenko got over 50 percent, but 82 percent is just unreal," says Oleg Manaev, an independent sociologist who conducts the only nonofficial opinion surveys in Belarus. "It is of some political urgency to clarify the actual vote the opposition received, which is possibly in the region of 25 percent."

Russia's 500-strong contingent of election observers praised the election as a model of democratic conduct. "There were a few technical imperfections during the elections, but no violations that could have changed the results of the vote," said Sergei Baburin, a Russian Duma deputy.

But 450 observers from the mainly Western Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement saying the polls "failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections."

The OSCE slammed Belarus's security service, the KGB, for creating "a climate of intimidation" and "an atmosphere of insecurity" through public accusations that the opposition was planning to launch a "terrorist" coup under the cover of protest rallies on election day. The report cited arrests and harassment of campaign workers, physical assaults on opposition leaders, and coercion of state employees to vote.

Milinkevich and another opposition candidate, Alexander Kazulin, are urging supporters to continue protesting on Minsk's central square. But hopes for a repeat of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which forced fresh elections after 12 days of mass rallies in Kiev following allegedly fraudulent presidential polls in 2004, appear to be fading fast.

"Now the harsh times are about to start," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, vice chair of the United Civil Party, one of 10 opposition parties that backed Milinkevich. "Many people fear there will be mass arrests once all the foreign observers and journalists leave Belarus. Lukashenko has crossed a line with this election, and we expect him to crack down hard on independent forces now."

Experts say Lukashenko has proven much more adept at controlling the media and hobbling the opposition than his pro-Moscow Ukrainian counterparts in 2004.

In the week before election day, Belarussian police were able to seize all copies of the country's only nonstate daily newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, and to prevent any movement of opposition supporters into the capital to take part in election-day rallies.

"The only source of information for most people is the state media, in which Lukashenko's opponents' names are never mentioned at all - they are referred to only as 'opposition' or 'so-called democrats,'" says Andrei Bastunets, deputy chair of the independent Belarussian Association of Journalists. "People simply have no sources of alternative information."

The editor of Narodnaya Volya, Svetlana Kolinkina, says she isn't sure whether the paper will ever be allowed to reopen. "This is a police state, with tough repression against any act of protest," she says. "The longer Lukashenko stays in power, the more this country will become a reactionary black hole."

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