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U.S. Condemns Belarus Crackdowns, Rejects Election Results

Protesters, Police Clash After Lukashenko Wins Vote
A protester gestures towards riot police during an opposition rally in Minsk. Photographer: Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government said it rejects as illegitimate the re-election of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and “strongly condemns” a crackdown on demonstrators protesting the longtime leader’s return to office.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs today called on Belarus authorities to release demonstrators who have been detained. At the State Department, spokesman Philip J. Crowley denounced beatings, arrests and the use of “excessive force” against opposition politicians, journalists and civil activists, some of whom tried to storm the parliament to protest Lukashenko’s re-election yesterday.

According to the Belarus Central Election Commission’s website, Lukashenko won 79.7 percent of the vote. Gibbs said the U.S. “cannot accept as legitimate” the official results.

Instead, the U.S. endorsed a report by the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which concluded that voting and counting were not free, fair or transparent. The OSCE said the process was “marred by the detention of most presidential candidates and hundreds of activists.”

Lukashenko, 56, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 under a regime dubbed the last dictatorship in Europe by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, vowed to punish protesters. With the opposition defanged, demonstrations will probably fizzle out, said Alexander Rahr, an analyst at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.

“The opposition was dispersed, and tomorrow no one will remember these leaders,” Rahr said by telephone. “The situation in Belarus will only change when opposition against Lukashenko emerges from within the system. So far, there has been nobody like this.”

‘Clear Step Backwards’

The White House today reiterated a Dec. 1 statement that “further development of relations is contingent upon the Government of Belarus’ respect for human rights and the democratic process.” Gibbs called the post-election violence “a clear step backwards” and expressed concern that independent Internet media had been disrupted, calling on the government to protect its “citizens’ right to free media.”

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called on authorities to “immediately release those arrested.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said today that while his country would always have a close relationship with Belarus, the elections “have to reflect sovereign will of Belarus people.”

Smashing Windows

Thousands rioted on Independence Square in central Minsk yesterday after the vote, which would give Lukashenko a fourth term in office. Protesters smashed windows and chanted slogans including “Go away” and “Long live Belarus,” footage on Google Inc.’s YouTube showed.

Post-election demonstrations in Ukraine led to the 2004 Orange Revolution, which swept opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to power over pro-Russia then-premier Viktor Yanukovych. A year earlier, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rose to power in the Rose Revolution, when he led protests over elections that he said incumbent Eduard Shevardnadze had rigged.

Minsk’s Independence Square was cleared by daybreak, said Alexander Atroshchenko, spokesman for candidate Andrei Sannikov, by telephone from Minsk. Opposition supporters were preparing to continue protests today, he added. Sannikov was detained, along with rival presidential candidates Grigory Kostusev, Vitaly Rymashevsky and Vladimir Neklyaev.

‘Paralyzed’ Opposition

Five presidential candidates were detained, with two others under house arrest, according to Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the German Marshall Fund.

“The opposition has been paralyzed,” he said by phone. “It will be very difficult for the protests to continue today. The police detained not only the presidential candidates, but also the campaigners and organizers.”

Protests following Belarus’s last presidential election four years ago fizzled out after freezing temperatures and multiple detentions shut down a camp that demonstrators set up outside the electoral commission in Minsk. The OSCE said the 2006 vote didn’t conform to international democratic standards.

“You should read our laws to find out what’s going to happen to protesters; everything will be done according to the law,” Lukashenko said, according to Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24. “You won’t see any disturbances.”

‘Dependent on Russia’

Belarus is part of a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan. The three countries plan to create an economic union in 2012. Russia and Belarus are further joined by a “union state” agreement developed in a series of treaties in the 1990s.

The ex-Soviet republic of 10 million that borders Russia and three European Union nations joined the EU’s Eastern Partnership to counter Russia’s influence.

The EU extended the suspension of a travel ban aimed at Lukashenko and top members of his government in October, arguing that a policy of engaging Lukashenko is leading to limited human-rights improvements in Belarus.

“Belarus’ economic stability is very dependent on Russia,” said Daniel Krutzinna, a Minsk-based investment consultant at Uniter Investment Company, in an interview in Warsaw today. Belarus’ foreign debt has doubled since the global economic crisis began, he said. The country needed a $3.5 billion International Monetary Fund to stay afloat last year.

The rhetoric between Minsk and Moscow became increasingly heated in October, with Lukashenko accusing Russian media of a “unscrupulous lies, disinformation and utter nonsense” that he implied was ordered by the Russian authorities.

‘Belligerent Reliance’

The two countries reached an energy deal on Dec. 9, when Lukashenko dropped earlier objections to closer economic integration with Russia in exchange for duty-free oil. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that his country will deliver as much as 21 million metric tons of crude to Belarus duty-free in 2011, costing Moscow $5.3 billion in lost revenue.

“The result ensures the status quo of Belarus’ belligerent reliance on Moscow remains intact for several more years,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Financial Corp. in Moscow, said by e-mail. “It ensures that, despite Lukashenko’s constant complaints, the umbilical cord between Moscow and Minsk remains unbroken.”

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