Belarus vote ends in dubious landslide

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The man described by America as Europe's last dictator appeared to have been re-elected President of Belarus last night by an improbable landslide, winning a suspiciously high number of votes in a contest marred by heavy-handed state repression.

State-sponsored exit polls released just two hours after voting began indicated that Aleksander Lukashenko, the hardliner who has ruled the former Soviet republic of Belarus since 1994, had won more than 80 per cent of the vote on a turnout above 80 per cent.

In contrast, his closest rival, the main opposition leader, Aleksander Milinkevic, was forecast to have won just 3 or 4 per cent of the vote. A defiant Mr Milinkevic said the opposition would not recognise the result, called on his supporters to protest peacefully on the streets, and demanded a re-run. "We will not recognise them and nor will democratic countries. This is already clear," he told reporters.

"People will laugh at those figures. In Poland people began laughing at the Communist authorities, and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if someone allowed himself to claim 120 per cent."

Several thousand opposition supporters filled central Minsk last night chanting Mr Milinkevic's name along with "Long live Belarus!" booing at a giant screen broadcasting fawning state coverage of the poll.

If and when confirmed, the results will hand Mr Lukashenko, 51, a fresh five-year mandate to govern Belarus, a country of 10 million people, making him Europe's longest-serving leader.

His opponents were starved of publicity, hundreds of opposition activists were arrested on spurious charges, one of the rival candidates was physically beaten, and state media plugged just one candidate: Mr Lukashenko.

Yesterday the former prison guard shrugged off criticism from America which has labelled his country "an outpost of tyranny", denouncing President George Bush as "terrorist number one on the planet".

"The Belarussian people are masters in their own country. As for sweeping accusations, I've been hearing them for 10 years. I've already got used to them."

State television broadcast footage of domestic and foreign Belarus-friendly election observers saying that the poll had been flawlessly fair, while police said they had not recorded even one crime, let alone an election-related incident.

Members of the public interviewed spoke of the holiday atmosphere and of the peaceful nature of voting, helpfully reinforcing Mr Lukashenko's boast that he has brought unprecedented stability to Belarus in an uncertain post-Soviet world.

Tension was high as opposition supporters continued to rally. Many roads and businesses in the centre of Minsk were closed, and policemen and security officials were conspicuously numerous. Locals were told to stay off the streets for fear of violence.

A long convoy of military trucks headed into the city centre and policemen could be seen pulling over buses packed with what looked like opposition supporters on the city's outskirts.

Belarus is run very much like the USSR. More than 80 per cent of the economy is state-controlled, the feared secret service is still called the KGB, and state television churns out a diet of anti-Western rhetoric.

Though the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, displays little personal warmth towards Mr Lukashenko, Moscow in effect props up his regime and guarantees Minsk's loyalty by selling it billions of dollars of subsidised oil and gas every year.