Protesters defy Belarus authorities for rallies denouncing election
MINSK, Belarus – The United States called for a new vote and the European Union threatened sanctions on Belarus, where thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the capital for a second night Monday to protest President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election.But the number of demonstrators was smaller than on election night, and prospects for a Ukraine-style “Orange Revolution” appeared remote as many of the protesters appeared to have little appetite for a prolonged vigil and a possibly violent confrontation with police.Lukashenko said Monday that his foes had failed to topple him in a foreign-backed “revolution.”With overnight temperatures at 28 degrees, protesters set up a dozen small tents and vowed to turn the demonstration into a round-the-clock presence. Most of the tents were draped with historic national flags favored by critics of Lukashenko, who has scrapped them for a Soviet-style version.”This is our last chance,” said Vladimir Fivsky, a 20-year-old student who had wrapped one of the red-striped white flags around his shoulders and wore a pin in the same colors saying: “For Freedom!” He said came to the square to protest because he “had enough” after 12 years of Lukashenko’s repressive rule.”The people want to stay until victory, and I’m with them,” said opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has branded Lukashenko’s overwhelming victory in Sunday’s elections a farce and called for a new vote.Officials put on a show of force, with busloads of riot police fanning out into nearby streets and courtyards and preventing people from approaching the main square. Police had only a small and unobtrusive presence at the protest the previous night, when an estimated 10,000 people braved the freezing cold and snow to register their outrage.The Bush administration called for new elections after independent observers said the election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the election was flawed by a “climate of fear,” and hinted that penalties such as travel restrictions “are things we will look at.””We support the call for a new election,” McClellan said. “The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus.”A series of punitive measures will be discussed with the EU, the State Department said. These could include widespread limits on financial assistance to the Minsk government.The administration already has peppered hard-line Belarus with restrictions on travel to the United States of individuals suspected of human rights abuses and barred meetings between high-level U.S. and Belarus officials.The EU said it was likely to impose sanctions, notably a wider travel ban on top political leaders in Belarus, including Lukashenko.By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko in a telegram and said the results would help strengthen the alliance of the two former Soviet nations.The election result, if it stands, would entrench the status of Belarus as one of the least independent of the former Soviet republics.Some 5,000 gathered in Oktyabrskaya Square in the capital, about half the number that came out Sunday night for a protest whose size was extraordinary in a tightly controlled country where police have cracked down swiftly on unsanctioned opposition gatherings.The diminished crowd suggested to many that the opposition was losing momentum.”There aren’t enough people” a young man hollered into a cell phone amid the din of the rally.But Milinkevich called on the demonstrators to gird for a lengthy campaign. He is demanding an election rerun.”Our protest will be long and strong,” he vowed. “We will never recognize this election. It’s not an election but an anti-constitutional seizure of power.”The crowd thinned as hours passed, but many shared a determination to go to the bitter end.”We plan to stay here overnight and to stay until the moment when the vote is pronounced falsified, when the authorities admit this and a new election is announced,” said a 21-year-old student who gave his name only as Alexander, one of a dozen people sitting among the tents.A few tents “may not change much, but if people lose their fear they will join us,” he said.Milinkevich visited the growing makeshift tent camp, taking sips of tea from a cup he was offered and saying: “We’re together.”As the rally was about to begin, busloads of riot police streamed into Karl Marx Street near the square. Security forces in helmets and camouflage uniforms disembarked from the buses, jogged into neighborhood courtyards and prevented pedestrians from walking toward the square.On the square, a 45-year-old woman who gave her name only as Irina said she was scared about the prospect of bloody police action, but “if Lukashenko stays in power, it will be even worse.”A cheer went up from the crowd in the square when a speaker reported the U.S. statement.The chief electoral official said Monday that Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, won a “convincing victory” with 82.6 percent of the votes – a number Milinkevich called “monstrously inflated.”Lukashenko scorned the opposition, saying voters had shown “who’s the boss” in Belarus. “The revolution that was talked about so much … has failed,” he told a nationally televised news conference.He asserted that Sunday’s protest leaders were in the pay of Western ambassadors and claimed there was no crackdown because the opposition is weak.”Who was there to fight with? Nobody, understand? That’s why we gave them the opportunity to show themselves, even though it was illegal.”
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