Lukashenko Re-Elected With 80 Percent Of Vote
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
These were the sounds last night in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
(Soundbite of sirens, shouting)
WERTHEIMER: Shortly after the polls closed in the country's presidential election, protesters were in the streets, and things turned violent. Riot police responded, banging their shields and clubs to intimidate the protesters in the former Soviet Republic. Hundreds of people were detained. At least a dozen were injured, including two American journalists. And reports suggest that candidates who ran in the election were beaten and arrested.
NPR's David Greene covered the events yesterday. He joins us now.
David, what is the scene like today?
DAVID GREENE: Much more calm, Linda. You know, it's a normal, snowy, gray morning in Minsk. But I'm looking out at the square where last night, there were thousands and thousands of people marching, as many as 30,000 or 40,000, some reports suggest. It was a pretty emotional scene. There were students. There were elderly people saying their president, Alexander Lukashenko, had rigged the day's election. It felt very peaceful.
But at one point, a group stormed the main government building that's across the street from me. And we should say some of the opposition leaders say the police actually did that to justify their aggressive response, sort of staged the attack on the building.
Whatever happened, riot police were on the streets. They were rounding people up. They were forcing journalists into the lobby of our hotel and saying that we couldn't be out there watching this. Two New York Times journalists were actually beaten. They had their faces shoved into the snow by police. And our own producer, Sergei Sotnikov, actually had a club shoved into his back by a police officer.
And we're hearing the government last night rounded up at least several of the nine opposition candidates. And there's one report that Vladimir Neklyayev, who is one of the main opposition candidates, was beaten on the street and hospitalized. And then some men went to his hospital bed and arrested him there and took him away from the hospital. So it was a pretty grim night.
WERTHEIMER: David, let's talk about the context. The long-time president, Alexander Lukashenko, won a land-slide victory. That's according to the state media that Lukashenko controls.
GREENE: That's right. And we should make that clear, that it's coming from the state's media that he is in charge of. And this would give him a new term after being in power for 16 years. President George W. Bush once described him as Europe's last dictator.
And even though we're right on the border with the EU, Linda - Poland, Lithuania - Lukashenko runs what feels a lot like a Soviet state here, centralized economy, domestic intelligence. And I think he wanted to show the Western governments that he could put on a real election. You know, he has a relationship with Russia, but he also is interested in courting the West.
It was quite some political theater. He gave a briefing to reporters, foreign journalists, and he had, you know, the cameras were rolling. Lukashenko was talking. There were voters behind him putting their ballots in the ballot box. It was really some stagecraft, using voters as props.
WERTHEIMER: So how will all these developments - this election, the trouble that followed it - how will that affect his reputation?
GREENE: It's hard to say. This isn't the first time, Linda, that political rallies have been broken up violently here in Belarus. And Lukashenko has survived for a long time. I mean, it feels like it'll depend more on whether his formula for staying in power can hold.
As I - you know, he's had some tension with Russia, but still, this country gets a lot of natural gas cheaply from that country. He's made some trade deals with Venezuela, China. So it's not clear that he needs the West right now. So he might be able to ignore their criticism for a while longer.
I have to say, though, the scene last night, these people marching, they said it's not a big revolution. They know that. But they felt like they were out on the streets at least sending a message that they want a different way of life here.
WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.
GREENE: Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's David Greene, reporting from Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
(Soundbite of music)
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