Europe's 'last dictator' tightens grip with crackdown on rivals

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The Independent Online

Alexander Lukashenko, the man often dubbed "Europe's last dictator", has vowed not to let "muddle-headed democracy" take hold in Belarus as he brushed off criticism of brutal tactics by riot police in the aftermath of his re-election.

As a sweeping crackdown began with scores of arrests that went to the very top of the country's political opposition, he told reporters that the voting, which other candidates insist was rigged, was "so open and transparent that people could have confused it for a reality television show".

According to the official results, Mr Lukashenko received almost 80 percent of the vote, giving a fourth term in office to the former collective farm boss who has ruled Belarus since 1994. Tens of thousands of people gathered in Minsk on Sunday night to protest the results, and even briefly attempted to storm the main government building, before being ruthlessly dispersed by riot police. But as heavy snow fell yesterday, Sunday night's mass stand-off seemed like a distant memory, and the Belarusian capital with its wide avenues and imposing Stalin-era buildings returned to its usual sleepy state.

Seven of the nine candidates who stood against Mr Lukashenko in the elections were believed to be under arrest last night, and Mr Lukashenko himself said that 639 people had been arrested in total. One of the main opposition candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten up on Sunday night as he tried to lead a group of supporters to the protest.

He was taken to hospital with head injuries, but his aide told news agencies that late in the night, several men arrived at the hospital, wrapped him up in blankets, and took him off into the night as his wife Olga screamed. Later she tearfully told reporters: "I do not know where my husband is located and who forcefully took him away."

There were also reports that members of the Belarus Free Theatre had been arrested. The world-renowned theatre has to put on plays in secret locations in its home country. The KGB, as the security forces in Belarus are still known, reportedly came knocking at the door of the theatre's co-founder, Vladimir Khalezin, in the early hours of yesterday morning and took him away. His wife, Natalia, another member of the theatre, was also arrested.

The mass arrests seem to have had the desired effect. There had been calls for further protests yesterday evening, but only about 100 people turned up to the central Independence Square, without the banners of the night before.

"There should be more people here today, but all our leaders have been arrested," said a 71-year-old former schoolteacher. As he spoke of his meagre pension and disaffection with the regime, a plainclothes officers approached and began to photograph him.

There had been a suggestion before the vote that Mr Lukashenko might attempt to gloss the elections with at least a veneer of democracy in order to win promised EU financial aid, much needed by the country after a recent falling out with traditional ally Russia. But yesterday the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised the violent crackdown on protesters, and said that the count had been "bad or very bad" in many places.

Mr Lukashenko brushed off the OSCE criticism, described the opposition as "bandits" and also suggested that he would try to "reform" the internet. On polling day, web-based email providers, Facebook and Twitter were all inaccessible in the country.

It is unclear what comes next for the country's democratic opposition, with many of the leaders now facing jail sentences. Only the prominent economist Yaroslav Romanchuk, one of just two candidates not to be arrested, appeared to be in the mood for compromise. He surprised many by criticising other opposition leaders for provoking the violence. He was later reported to have met with the Belarusian President and discussed his economic programme.

Among the few people who made it to Independence Square last night, the mood was downbeat. "I despise Lukashenko," said Vital Voranau, a 27-year-old Belarusian, currently studying in the Czech Republic. "I came back especially to take part in the protests, but I don't know what is going to happen now. I hope we don't have to wait until the next presidential elections before we have another chance to get rid of this regime."

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