"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt


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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Violence Erupts in Belarus Following Election and Alleged Voter Fraud


Presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev being carried away

"Thousands of opposition supporters in Belarus tried to storm the main government building to protest what they claim was large-scale vote-rigging in Sunday's presidential election, but they were driven back and beaten by riot police.

"Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes with the 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.

"Up to 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 mass street protests against Lukashenko in 1996, but it was over within hours. By late Sunday, police had cleared Independence Square of all demonstrators.

"Protesters broke windows and glass doors of the government building, which also houses the Central Election Commission, but they were repelled by riot police waiting inside. Hundreds more riot police and Interior Ministry troops then arrived in trucks and sent most of the demonstrators fleeing. Some tried to hide in the courtyards of nearby apartment buildings, but were bludgeoned by troops waiting inside the courtyards.

[...]

"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.

"Another opposition candidate, Vitaly Rymashevsky, was beaten in clashes with riot police by the government building. He claimed that the people who attempted to storm the building were police acting as demonstrators and that he was attacked when he tried to stop them.

"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.

[...]

"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.

[...]

"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 year.

"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.

[...]

"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."

I know very little about Belarusian politics, so I can't comment too much on this. It could be interesting to observe how this develops, though.

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