Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian President of Belarus for seven years, claimed a sweeping victory last night in national elections that were dogged by allegations of electoral fraud and intervention by foreign intelligence services.
Mr Lukashenko won 78.4 per cent of the vote with 75 per cent of ballots counted, according to the Central Election Commission. "It was an elegant and beautiful victory," he said, after apparently seeing off the challenge of Vladimir Goncharik, a veteran trade union leader. Victory would give Mr Lukashenko another five-year term and a mandate to pursue his goal of a merger with Russia a policy that is likely to isolate his country further.
Although opinion polls had long indicated the President would win by a large margin, Mr Goncharik said he would not recognise the results of the vote and accused Mr Luka-shenko of "seizing power. This is clear falsification caused by replacing ballots during early balloting and at closed polling stations," he said.
As the first voters trickled into the polling stations early yesterday, his opponents were already claiming that Mr Lukashenko was planning to steal the election. Alexander Silich, an opposition journalist, said: "I don't think he has more than 35 per cent support. If he is declared an outright winner in the first round on Monday it is because he faked the votes." Mass protests were being planned for yesterday evening.
But some who voted for Mr Lukashenko derided the opposition's claims. As he emerged from a polling station in Minsk, one pensioner, his chest covered in medals, said contemptuously: "They protest so much because they have to earn the dollars the US gives them."
Mr Lukashenko appears to have calculated that most Belarussians do not want radical changes. He may well be right.
Svetlana Tenkova, a research engineer, said: "I voted for Lukashenko because he represents stability. My father is a military pensioner and only gets $150 a month, but at least it is paid. This would not happen if we lived in Ukraine."
Belarus, with a population of 10 million, still resembles the Soviet Union. Wages are low but they are paid. Jobs are available. Utilities, education and health care are cheap.
Andrei Vardomaski, of the opinion poll company Novak, said: "It is the less well educated, the poor, the old and people living in isolated villages who will vote for Lukashenko. His opponents are strongest among the better off and in cities like Minsk."
Normally, Belarus plays little role in the politics of Eastern Europe. But in the final weeks of the election campaign Cold War rhetoric returned and the US embassy and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had a surprisingly high profile.
Michael Kozak, the US ambassador in Minsk, helped form US policy in Central America during the Reagan years. He was strongly criticised by Mr Lukashenko, as was Hans-Georg Wieck, the former head of West Germany's foreign intelligence who now heads the OSCE. Mr Lukashenko said last week: "The opposition and their Western puppet masters react to our achievements with ever increasing bitterness.Hans-Georg Wieck was wrong to expect that Lukashenko would expel him before the presidential election. We will throw him out after the election." He added: "I will only tolerate the intrigues of Kosak until after the elections."
The American embassy and the OSCE are not wrong about Mr Lukashenko using his administrative muscle to try to win. Officials appointed by him wanted to prove their loyalty by ensuring a big turn-out.
Most important is the government's tight grip on the media. Alexander Silich sadly holds up a copy of his newspaper, Narodnaya Volia, which has a large white space on the front page. He said: "There was an article about electoral fraud here but a government-appointed director of our printing company simply cut it out." Journalists on the paper are having to write their articles at home because police confiscated all the office computers.
Four of Mr Lukashenko's most prominent opponents have disappeared since 1999. Defectors from the Belarussian secret police say they were murdered by a death squad.
* A small explosion blew up a bench near the US embassy in Minsk yesterday. No injuries or other damage were reported, police said. (AP)
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