MINSK, Belarus – The White House on Monday refused to recognize the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, joining European leaders and observers in denouncing the authoritarian leader’s victory as the product of a climate of fear and repression.
Lukashenko’s landslide victory over opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich sparked a second day of protests in Minsk’s downtown Oktyabrskaya Square, where thousands of Belarussians cheered as Milinkevich called the incumbent leader’s presidency illegal and demanded a rerun of the election.
“This wasn’t an election – this was an unconstitutional seizure of power by the authorities,” Milinkevich told thousands of demonstrators braving a second night of bitterly cold temperatures in the Belarussian capital. “The majority of Belarussians are laughing at these election results.”
The Belarussian Central Election Commission’s final count had Lukashenko winning 82 percent of the vote, with Milinkevich getting just 6 percent. Exit polls by Russia’s Levada Center produced a far different picture that would have forced a runoff contest: 47 percent for Lukashenko and 26 percent for Milinkevich.
“The United States does not accept the results of the election,” said President Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellan. “The election campaign was conducted in a climate of fear. It included arrests and beatings and fraud.”
McClellan backed the opposition’s call for a new election and lauded demonstrators “for their courage and peaceful stand to reclaim their freedom.” He also said that the United States, with the European Union, was “prepared to act against those officials responsible for election fraud and human rights abuses. We also warn authorities in Belarus against threatening or detaining those exercising their political rights in the coming days and beyond.”
EU leaders said they would consider the extension of travel bans for Belarus’ top leaders, as well as freezing the assets of those leaders.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the election as “severely flawed.” The group, which dispatched more than 500 observers to Belarus, cited the arrests of hundreds of opposition campaign workers and supporters as a major factor that contributed to a climate of intimidation leading up to Sunday’s election.
None of the rebukes from Washington or Europe was likely to have any impact on Lukashenko, isolated as a pariah by the West for much of his presidency. Holding court at a two-hour news conference, Lukashenko reveled in belittling opposition leaders and what he asserted are attempts by the West to foment regime change in his country.
“I would like to say that the revolution that has been talked about so much has failed,” Lukashenko declared. “In spite of all the pressure coming from outside the country, they couldn’t break us.” He called his election victory fair and democratic and dismissed the thousands of protesters who jammed into Oktyabrskaya Square as teenagers who were paid to show up.