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December 19, 2010

Belarus Leader Shrugs Off Accusations of Election Fraud, Violence

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus appeared on Monday to shrug off accusations that he won his re-election through a combination of vote fraud and violence.

Mr. Lukashenko said his government arrested more than 600 people of the thousands in Minsk who faced baton-wielding riot police to protest his re-election.  He called the protestors "vandals."  

U.S. and European diplomats on Monday condemned Belarus for using excessive force against Sunday's demonstrators. Seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates also were arrested.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement it was "especially concerned" by the beatings and detentions of the candidates.  It also cited with alarm the forcible removal of opposition leader Vladimir Neklyayev from a Minsk hospital by unknown individuals after he was beaten by police.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized what it called a "flawed vote count" that gave Mr. Lukashenko an overwhelming victory.  It called for the government of Belarus to account for the arrest of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists.

The European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, also criticized the violence against protestors.

Election officials say Mr. Lukashenko on Sunday won a fourth five-year term, with almost 80 percent of the vote.  His nearest rival won less than three percent of the vote.

Russian election observers said the vote was "legitimate," while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the post-vote violence was an "internal matter" for Belarus.

The opposition alleges the polls were rigged, and thousands gathered in central Minsk just minutes after polls closed to protest what they say were widespread voting irregularities.

Riot police charged into the crowd swinging truncheons after some protesters smashed windows and doors of government headquarters and tried to storm the building.

Mr. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 with little tolerance for political opposition.