Lukashenka Uncovered

IT WOULD be more honest if Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus's thuggish and dictatorial president, did away with elections altogether. Instead, yesterday's charade of a poll resulted in false expectations and cracked skulls. As the country's slavish electoral committee declared Mr Lukashenka the winner, with 80% of votes on an improbable turnout of more than 90%, the true outcome of this election began to emerge.

Last night a massive demonstration of some 30,000 people was brutally dispersed by the Belarusian KGB and riot police. Six hundred people have been arrested. Many more have been beaten up. Seven of the nine candidates standing against Mr Lukashenka are in prison, some of them badly hurt. Their supporters are being hunted by the local KGB. Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and one of the main candidates, was knocked unconscious as he tried to make his way to a demonstration. Later security services removed him from hospital—as his wife, reportedly, screamed from a locked room—and placed him in detention.

Another opposition candidate, Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat, was also badly beaten. He and his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist for Russia’s courageous Novaya Gazeta newspaper, were on their way to hospital when they were pushed to the side of the road by police. Ms Khalip was giving a live interview to Echo Moskvy, a Russian radio station, when a police officer pulled her out of the car. “What are you doing?" she screamed on air. "They are beating me in the face, they are twisting my arms, they’ve pushed me to the ground...Bastard, fascists...”. Then the connection was lost. 

Last night's clashes escalated after a small group of protesters tried to break into the government headquarters, which was barricaded from the inside. Riot police armed with shields and batons began to club the protestors on the head. Natalia Radzina, who runs Charter 97, an opposition website, was bludgeoned and her site came under cyber-attack. Natalia Koliada, a founder of the Belarus Free Theatre group, was also arrested.

In the best tradition of the Soviet KGB, whose name they have lovingly preserved, Belarusian security services carried out arrests in the middle of the night, taking people from their homes. Dmitry Bondarenko, a prominent activist and supporter of Mr Sannikov, was arrested at 6am. “My grandfather was a partisan during the second world war. My grandmother was taken by the Gestapo. I grew up on stories about partisans”, he told me a few weeks ago in Minsk.

This time, however, the aggressor is not a foreign enemy but the president. Mr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus for 16 years, twisting the constitution to ensure an indefinite stay in power. After the last presidential election, in 2006, protestors remained in the main square for a few days. This time, Mr Lukashenka probably decided it was too risky to wait.

That the election would be rigged was clear for a long time. Media coverage was monopolised by the government, and "early voting" carried out several days before the election delivered about a quarter of Mr Lukashenka's votes. Observers from the camps of opposition candidates were stationed at less than 1% of polling stations. In a fair contest, Mr Lukashenka may have received more votes than his opponents, but almost certainly not enough to win in the first round.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the count of half of the ballot papers was “bad or very bad”. Tony Lloyd, head of the OSCE mission, said the election had "failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better... I now expect the government to account for the arrests of presidential candidates, journalists and human rights activists." Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, called on Belarus to "immediately release" the opposition leaders and condemned the use of violence, as did America.

In fact, opposition leaders in Belarus had never hoped for a fair election. They rather saw the vote as an opportunity to reach out directly to the population and demand a genuine poll later. They were also hoping that Russia, which has quarrelled with Mr Lukashenka this year, would back them up, or at least not give Mr Lukashenka a free hand, as it has done previously. Only a few months ago, the Kremlin, through its Russian television channels, accused Mr Lukashenka of repression and election-rigging. But at the eleventh hour Mr Lukashenka made peace with the Kremlin.

But a few hours after last night's demonstration of police brutality Russian observers said, “These actions [by the police] cannot be considered as anything but legal.” Pavel Borodin, a Russian official in charge of Russia's much-postponed "union state" with Belarus, blamed America for the unrest. “They [Americans] lured young guys and got them drunk. Everything is coming from beyond the ocean”. (Mr Borodin was briefly detained in New York in 2001 on money laundering charges, before being extradited to Switzerland and released).

Although Russia is yet to formally recognise the election result, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, said it was an "internal matter" for Belarus, and did not comment on the violence. But the unrest embarrassed some European leaders, who had argued before the elections that Mr Lukashenka’s regime was becoming more liberal, and promised the government money if the vote were conducted properly. Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s president, reportedly told EU diplomats that a victory by Mr Lukashenka would safeguard stability and limit Russian influence.

Mr Lukashenka has once again successfully managed to play off Russia against the West. The real losers in his tiresome game are the people of Belarus.
The Economist