Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thousands try to storm govt building in Belarus

By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press Dec. 19, 2010

MINSK, Belarus – Thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus tried to
storm the main government building to protest what the opposition claims
was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election.

Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with riot police, left
bruised and bloody after being beaten with clubs. An Associated Press
reporter at the scene also was struck on the head, back and arm.

Protesters broke windows and glass doors, but were pushed back by riot
police waiting inside the building, which also houses the Central Election
Commission. Hundreds more riot police then arrived in trucks.

About 40,000 opposition activists rallied in central Minsk to call for
longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to step down. It was
the largest opposition rally since 1996.

"We had a peaceful protest and it is the authorities who used forced,"
said Marat Titovets, a 40-year-old engineeer. "After Lukashenko spilled
blood, he cannot remain in power."

Leading opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was beaten by riot police
while leading a few hundred of his supporters to the demonstration and was
taken by ambulance to a hospital, according to his wife. His left eye was
bruised, his nose was bleeding and he was nauseous and unable to speak,
Olga Neklyayeva told the Associated Press.

After the polls closed, thousands of opposition activists converged as
planned on October Square, but most of the square had been flooded to make
an ice skating rink and pop music boomed from loudspeakers.

The protesters then set off along the main avenue toward Independence
Square, where the main government building is located.

The demonstrators shouted "leave" to Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since
1994 in a heavy-handed regime that is often characterized as the last
dictatorship in Europe.

"Belarusians have shown that they want freedom and cannot tolerate the
current regime," opposition leader Yaroslav Romanchuk said.

Russia and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having
offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.

Signs that Lukashenko is leaning toward the West would be a moral victory
for countries that have long criticized his harsh rule and worried about
his connections with vehemently anti-West regimes. For Russia, a return to
the fold would bolster Moscow's desire to remain the power-broker in
former Soviet regions.

In casting his ballot, Lukashenko expressed confidence that he would win a
fourth term. He denounced the planned opposition rally as being led by
"bandits and saboteurs" and proclaimed that it would not take place.

"Don't worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight," Lukashenko
said while voting with his 6-year-old son, Kolya.

But tens of thousands turned out.

"How can we counter a dictator who created a police state in the past 16
years?" said 21-year-old student Artur Makayonak, who was among the
activists heading to the square. "Only our protests, our strive for
freedom and a peaceful rally."

Opposition candidates and rights activists said five senior campaign
workers and 27 opposition activists have been detained since Saturday.
Police refused to comment.

Neklyayev had condemned the detentions.

"When the representatives of one of the candidates get arrested on the
orders of another candidate, that cannot be called an election," he said.

Police spokesman Konstantin Shalkevich said Neklyayev was injured during a
standoff between unarmed police and aggressive demonstrators. His wife
said smoke bombs and firecrackers were tossed at Neklyayev's column of
supporters, and then police threw themselves at her husband and began to
beat him.

Nearly a quarter of the 7 million registered voters went to the polls in
five days of early voting last week, according to the Central Election
Commission. The opposition and election observers say early voting allows
for ballot stuffing as boxes are poorly guarded and voting precincts are
poorly monitored.

Lukashenko, a 56-year-old former collective firm manager, maintains a
quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent
broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping about 80 percent of the
industry under state control.

Although once seen as almost a lapdog of Russia, Lukashenko in recent
years has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin as Russia raised prices
for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends.

However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs
for oil exported to Belarus — a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a

But Lukashenko also is working to curry favor with the West, which has
harshly criticized his years of human rights abuses and repressive
politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the U.S., which in
previous years he had cast as an enemy.

The European Union, eager to see reforms in the obstreperous country on
its borders, has offered euro3 billion ($3.9 billion) in aid to Belarus if
the elections are judged to be free and fair. The prospects of such a
judgment and payout seem remote, however, analysts said.

Lukashenko faced nine other candidates, who were uncharacteristically
allotted time for debates on state TV and radio and whose campaign rallies
have met less official obstruction than in previous elections.

A candidate needs to get half the total votes in order to win in the first
round; the large number of challengers appears to make that unachievable
for any of them, but a combined strong performance could deny Lukashenko
an outright victory. The opposition claims that a first-round victory for
the president could only come through fraud.

Some voters who cast their ballots in -8 C (17 F) degree temperatures in
Minsk said they favored Lukashenko in order to preserve stability.

"Only Lukashenko promises stability and calm. We don't need upheavals,"
said Zinaida Pulshitskaya, 62, a retired teacher.

Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova contributed to this report.

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