Riot police try to derail Belarus election protest

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The Independent Online

Pro-democracy activists in Belarus have tried to emulate Ukraine's orange revolution by pitching tents in the capital, Minsk, in an attempt to force a rerun of an election they claim was rigged.

Aleksander Lukashenko, the country's authoritarian leader since 1994, declared himself the victor of last Sunday's poll, ostensibly winning 82.6 per cent of the vote on a turnout of more than 90 per cent. His rival, the opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevic, apparently won just 6 per cent.

The United States, the EU and Western election monitors have all said the election was neither free nor fair - though Russia, a key Belarus ally, declared it legitimate.

Critics say the campaign was one-sided and that the opposition faced state-sanctioned intimidation and was given virtually no coverage on state television. Emboldened by such support, the opposition pitched about 15 tents on Monday night in October Square in the city centre despite freezing temperatures and snow. Mr Milinkevic has vowed to make the Ukraine-style protests "round-the-clock" until Mr Lukashenko agrees to a rerun without his own participation.

But the campaign has so far failed to attract the necessary mass participation. The first protest on Sunday was attended by about 10,000 people, the second on Monday night by about half that and, by yesterday afternoon, the number of permanent protesters in the "tent city" was down to about 200.

Riot police observed and hindered the protesters by trying to prevent supplies reaching them and by arresting key opposition figures, including Mr Milinkevic's campaign manager, on minor public order offences.

The crowd kept itself entertained by chanting anti-government slogans and by waving Ukrainian and Georgian flags, in a nod to the "velvet" revolutions in those countries.

But Nikolai Lozovik, secretary of Belarus' election commission, yesterday condemned the protest as "the fading ashes of the fire that Western ill-wishers hoped to fan".

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