Thousands of people rallied in a blinding snowstorm in Minsk Sunday night to protest what they called "fraud," after election officials predicted incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko would win a third term as president with over 90 percent of the votes.
"No one can believe Lukashenko got so many votes," said Roman Chorny, an engineer, one of about 10,000 people who filled October Square in central Minsk. Many chanting "Freedom" and "Down with dictatorship," waved the red and white Belarussian flag banned by Mr. Lukashenko several years ago.
"We will have our freedom, maybe not tonight, but soon. We have the hope," Mr. Chorny said.
Despite such enthusiasm, there seemed little sign that the demonstration would ignite into a Ukrainian-style popular "Orange Revolution" that might bring Lukashenko down. In 2004, massive protests - prompted by suspected electoral fraud - spawned a tent city in Kiev's central square and eventually brought the government down. Activists with the Zubr opposition youth movement in Belarus said they had no plans to pitch tents in the vast capital square, and some suggested winning freedom might take years.
"When you have such a strong dictator, backed by a powerful country such as Russia, what do you expect?" said Nikolai, who declined to give his last name. "The people's awareness is too low right now."
The election was seen as a crucial test of strength for Lukashenko, who changed the constitution two years ago to permit himself to run for a third term in office.
Over the past month police have arrested dozens of campaign workers for opposition candidates Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin, closed about 20 opposition newspapers, and muzzled several nongovernmental organizations.
Independent polls taken prior to Sunday's vote suggested Lukashenko could probably win a free election with just over 50 percent support.
But exit polls by two officially connected groups, released during the day Sunday, suggested Lukashenko had won with over 80 percent.
Later on Sunday, a huge television screen towering over October Square showed Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina announcing that Lukashenko had won 92.2 percent of the vote in hospitals and military units, causing the crowd to roar in disbelief. Ms. Yermoshina added that, although no overall result is ready, the final result was unlikely to differ much.
Authorities had warned of violence if people rallied to protest the election results, but all appeared peaceful by around 11 p.m. local time Sunday.
As opposition leader Mr. Milinkevich attempted to address the crowd, a snow squall swept the square, driving many people to flee to the shelter of nearby buildings. "Even the weather is on Lukashenko's side tonight," said Nikolai, with a hint of bitterness.