Graham Stack in Minsk -
Over 100 people were arrested in Minsk after the Sunday, December 19 Belarusian presidential election ended in violence. Demonstrators attempted to storm the parliament building shortly after authorities announced that incumbent Alexander Lukashenko had won a landslide victory, but were repulsed by baton-wielding riot police.
"This is the beginning of the end of Lukashenko," current presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov told bne as protestors against alleged electoral fraud tolled a church bell on Minsk's Independence Square. "We want power now," he added.
With 100% of the ballots counted, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said preliminary results showed Lukashenko with 79.67% of the vote, winning a fourth term; his closest rival, opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, received 2.56% of the vote. CEC head Lidiya Yermoshina said voter turnout was 90.66%.
Sannikov and other opposition candidates told bne that independent calculations by their observers had put Lukashenko's true share of the vote at only 37%, meaning that a second round of voting should take place.
Opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was injured and hospitalized during the unsanctioned protest, but taken from his hospital bed to by police, his wife told RIA Novosti. "Plainclothes people broke into the ward. They said they were law enforcement officers. They took my husband from his bed into their car," Neklyayev's wife, Olga, said.
Neklyayev, a poet turned politician, was treated for head injuries at the police station where he remains under arrest. The leaders of the opposition will be charged with organising "mass riots," according to reports.
Opposition websites reported that all of the four main presidential candidates, namely Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, Grigory Koktusev and Vitaly Rymashevsky, were detained following the protests according to reports late on Sunday.
Several journalists, including Russia Today journalists, were detained or beaten during the clampdown on the rally participants.
Belarus has been dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" and remains a pariah state in Europe as a result, despite the president's recent attempts to move closer to Europe - and away from Russia.
The country has been under Lukashenko's control since 1994, who has all-encompassing powers and no limit on the number of terms he can serve. But in the wake of the economic downturn and worsening relations with former sponsor Russia, the president's position has been weakened.
Minutes after Sannikov spoke to bne, young activists attempted to storm Government House on Independence Square, where the CEC also resides. However, the glass doors were boarded up, and behind the boards were ranks of riot police.
While members of Sannikov's staff said the riot was partly the work of agent provocateurs, some of those involved told bne they were independent pro-democracy activists fed up with the Lukashenko regime. "We have lived for 16 years under Lukashenko, as long as I can remember, and we have had enough," said Maksim, a 24-year-old student involved in the attempt to enter the government building, who did not reveal his last name, but said he was a member of an independent civil organization.
While some of the presidential candidates present on Independence Square attempted to negotiate with the authorities, riot police took things into their own hands and cleaned the square with clinical efficiency. Around 250 protestors were rounded up into waiting police vans and driven away.
Up to 10,000 demonstrators had initially gathered on Minsk's October Square before marching to Government House on Independence Square. But the violence had started earlier in the day, when leading presidential opposition candidate Vladimir Neklaev, Sannikov's ally, was beaten up by unknown assailants wearing masks and throwing smoke bombs. Neklaev was taken to hospital in an ambulance.
Early voting susceptible to fraud
Turnout two hours before close of voting had already reached an impressive 85% of voters, according to official results. However, the spectacularly high turnout only confirmed opposition fears about the Belarus' "tradition" of early voting. "Ten years ago, Lukashenko perfected a unique system of 'early voting'," presidential candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk, a liberal economist, told bne on the eve of the elections. "This involves up to 25% of voters - students, military, law-enforcement - being persuaded to vote early. A carrot-and-stick system is used, for instance for students - those voting early get to go home for holidays, and those refusing to comply can have problems passing exams, keeping their place in dorms or simply find themselves ex-matriculated."
According to the CEC, 23.2% of registered voters, a total of 1,629m people, had voted early in the 2010 elections, down on a figure of 31.3% in 2006.
While early voters are not forced to vote for the incumbent president, according to Romanchuk, early voting allows the authorities to implement massive fraud by simply substituting ballot boxes. The CEC has consistently refused to introduce the transparent ballot boxes that counteract mass stuffing of ballot papers, and ballot boxes remain unwatched by observers at night, he said.
Since relations with Russia started to sour in 2007 over energy prices, Lukashenko has rolled out a system of "stage-managed democracy" in an attempt to curry favour in the West without losing his grip on power.
Starting with parliamentary elections in October 2008, Lukashenko has actively welcomed international observers and journalists to report on Belarus elections. This time round, the nine opposition presidential candidates had two 32-minute slots of airtime each, plus two TV debates during the election, in which incumbent President Lukashenko declined to participate. They also were allowed to campaign across the country with little obstruction. Security services remained low key, until the attempted storm of Government House.
However, not only was a leading opposition candidate beaten up by unknown assailants on election day, liberal candidate Romanchuk narrowly escaped injury in what he called a contrived car accident a few days before the election.
The superficial improvements nevertheless impressed international observers. Head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer mission, Gert Arens, was quoted by Belarus media as speaking of "progress towards democracy."
Critics say that structurally all the cards are stacked in Lukashenko's favour. Besides the notorious early voting system and absolute state control of broadcasting, state ownership of most of the economy means that political activity can result swiftly in loss of employment.
State control of the economy has also enabled Lukashenko to channel credit to support industrial production, to redistribute resource and transit rents to clientele population groups such as pensioners and agricultural workers, and to avoid contagion from the pre-crisis credit bubble.
However, the global economic crisis still hit Belarus hard, forcing devaluation, borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and dampening economic growth. The economic downturn has thus, it seems, heightened discontent with the country's inflexible regime.
The mood among voters in the centre of Minsk on December 19 was markedly anti-Lukashenko. "I and all my friends are against Lukashenko and will go to the demonstration, although I fear repressions," said 23-year-old Boris Zinkevich, a graphic designer, who voted for Neklaev. "The country needs a choice. It needs democracy."
"We need a new face," said Aleksandr, 45, who refused to give his surname.
Elena, 53, who said she "worked in the system" and therefore declined to name her surname and profession, said she had voted for Sannikov, because of his high level of education and preference for a parliamentary republic. "People are tired of a monarch," she said.
Much of the political divisions in Belarus run across generational lines, with young people largely against Lukashenko's pro-Soviet ideology. In the run-up to elections, a you-tube video called "Hide your granny's passport" - to prevent her voting for Lukashenko - became a cult hit in Belarus. Tellingly, the creators of the video promptly lost their jobs in state media or were ex-matriculated from their universities.
State-controlled media were quick to blame December 19 disturbances on "drunken teenagers," and to use the violence to discredit the opposition. Opposition leaders said they would continue protests during the coming week, but with freezing temperatures and efficient policing, their chances of forcing the regime to make concessions are slim.
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