MINSK, Belarus — 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.
Protesters broke windows and glass doors, but were pushed back by riot police waiting inside the building, which also houses the Central Election Commission. 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.
By late Sunday, troops had surrounded about 2,000 protesters remaining on Independence Square.
Few had expected tens of thousands to join the election-night protest, which Lukashenko had made clear would be dispersed by force. The question remained of whether the opposition had the momentum to maintain pressure on Lukashenko or whether Sunday’s violence would effectively put an end to the opposition’s hopes.
“We had a peaceful protest and it is the authorities who used forced,” said Marat Titovets, a 40-year-old engineeer. “After Lukashenko spilled blood, he cannot remain in power.”
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.
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.
“Belarusians have shown that they want freedom and cannot tolerate the current regime,” opposition leader Yaroslav Romanchuk said.
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.
“Don’t worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight,” Lukashenko said while voting with his 6-year-old son, Kolya.
But tens of thousands turned out.
“How can we counter a dictator who created a police state in the past 16 years?” said 21-year-old student Artur Makayonak, who was among the activists heading to the square. “Only our protests, our strive for freedom and a peaceful rally.”
Opposition candidates and rights activists said five senior campaign workers and 27 opposition activists have been detained since Saturday. Police refused to comment.
Neklyayev had condemned the detentions.
“When the representatives of one of the candidates get arrested on the orders of another candidate, that cannot be called an election,” he said.
Police spokesman Konstantin Shalkevich said Neklyayev was injured during a standoff between unarmed police and aggressive demonstrators. His wife said smoke bombs and firecrackers were tossed at Neklyayev’s column of supporters, and then police threw themselves at her husband and began to beat him.
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 per cent 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 favour 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.
The European Union, eager to see reforms in the obstreperous country on its borders, has offered C3 billion ($3.9 billion) in aid to Belarus if the elections are judged to be free and fair. The prospects of such a judgment and payout seem remote, however, analysts said.
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.
Some voters who cast their ballots in -8 C (17 F) degree temperatures in Minsk said they favoured Lukashenko in order to preserve stability.
“Only Lukashenko promises stability and calm. We don’t need upheavals,” said Zinaida Pulshitskaya, 62, a retired teacher.