Protests Greet Reelection of President in Belarus

Election officials in Belarus say incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko has won the presidential vote by a huge margin. But the main opposition candidate is calling for a new election as thousands of his supporters jammed a main square in central Minsk.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The man who's ruled the former Soviet Republic of Belarus since 1994 has been declared the winner the election there.

Alexander Lukashenko took almost 83% of the vote, according to official figures. But the opposition says the election was rigged and European monitors say it failed to meet international standards for a free and fair vote.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Minsk.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Up to 10,000 people braved snow and freezing winds last night to stream into Minsk's broad Main Square and chant Long Live Belarus.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

Passing cars blared their horns, and one young activist drew huge applause for climbing on a moving bus to wave the old, red and white Belarus flag, which Lukashenko recently replaced with a Soviet-style design.

The crowds pressed to hear Alexander Milinkevich, the top opposition candidate, who's fast becoming the central symbol of opposition to strong-man President Lukashenko. Between statements to supporters, Milinkevich told NPR the opposition is deciding how to respond to the election.

Mr. ALEXANDER MILINKEVICH (Opposition Candidate, Belarus): (Through translator) Its already perfectly clear there has to be another round of voting. Not the kind we had. It has to be a real election next time.

FEIFER: The opposition says the government fixed the vote's outcome. Washington has called the election campaign seriously flawed and tainted. Many at the demonstration said people are fed-up with growing authoritarianism during Lukashenko's twelve years in office.

In the run-up to the elections, hundreds of opposition campaigners were jailed, and all independent newspapers shut down. Milinkevich said the rally showed things are changing in Belarus, and that people are overcoming their fear of the authorities.

Mr. MILINKEVICH: (Through translator): This is a free Belarus, a new Belarus, and no one can put it on its knees any longer.

FEIFER: Belarus Union of Journalists president Jon Alitvina(ph) agrees.

Mr. JON ALITVINA (Belarus Union of Journalists): (Through translator): I look at my people and I see that everything's all right with us. Victory is still ahead of us. We're on the verge of change.

FEIFER: The demonstrations pass off peacefully despite predictions of a violent clash with many busloads of troops nearby. Authorities had accused opposition groups of planning a violent coup d'etat.

Earlier in the day, Leonarda Muchina(ph), an opposition election observer at a voting station in central Minsk, said officials had refused to allow her to watch ballot counting, and wouldn't even answer how many people had voted.

Ms. LEONARDA MUCHINA (Belarus Opposition Election Observer): (Foreign spoken)

FEIFER: As soon as an observer writes a request for those numbers, she said, they're immediately discarded.

German legislator Markus Meckel is an election observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Speaking in an opposition rally before the election, he agreed the vote would be rigged.

Mr. MARKUS MECKEL (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe): The official results is fixed today, and we know it before.

FEIFER: Aleksander Lubiyetko(ph) is a key opposition figure. He says the authorities' tactics show they want to hold onto power by force. Speaking in his headquarters, guarded by government troops in the tense hours before the demonstration, Lubiyetko complained about government interference, pointing to the fact that his party had been unable to hold a meeting on Election Day.

Mr. ALEKSANDER LUBIYETKO (Deputy Chairman, United Civil Party): (Through translator) Only half the people showed up, because some of them are in jail, and the others were stopped from traveling from the regions.

FEIFER: But if Lukashenko didn't win the 80% claimed by the central elections commission, he's still genuinely popular among many voters.

Like many casting her ballots yesterday, market vendor Nina Ryduke(ph) says she supports Lukashenko for providing security.

Ms. NINA RYDUKE (Market Vendor, Belarus): (Foreign spoken)

FEIFER: In our country we don't have crime. We don't have war, she said. Maybe our wages aren't so large, but we're not poor.

Some Minsk residents say life Monday will return to normal after most people go back to work. But Milinkevich isn't giving up. He's called on supporters to gather again today.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Minsk.

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