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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Minsk Victory Questioned at Home, Abroad

ReutersPresident Alexander Lukashenko speaking during a news conference Monday in Minsk and defending his disputed victory.
MINSK, Belarus -- President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday celebrated a landslide victory, but European monitors declared the election undemocratic and unfair.

Belarus' main opposition leader, Vladimir Goncharik, said vote sampling by the opposition showed the results were rigged. He demanded the election be declared invalid.

Buoyant with victory, Lukashenko brushed off the criticism and said he was ready to cooperate with the West.

The Belarussian Central Election Commission said Lukashenko had a sweeping 75.6 percent of Sunday's vote, according to a preliminary count. It said 83.9 percent of eligible voters turned out.

Goncharik, who fronted a broad coalition of opposition parties, took 15.4 percent of the vote and centrist politician Sergei Gaidukevich had 2.5 percent, election commission chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina told a news conference. She said the final official results would be released in three days.

"It was not democratic. I would not use the words free and fair," said Hrair Balian, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission. "There was an atmosphere of fear that made a fair election impossible."

The United States said it would not recognize the results.

Several hundred of Goncharik's supporters braved the threat of a KGB crackdown and gathered in a square in front of election headquarters to protest on Monday evening.

"I'd be the first to congratulate Luka-shenko if the elections were fair and honest. But this was not the case. We are talking here about a seizure of power," Goncharik said, as the crowd shouted "Shame" and "Long live Belarus."

The crowd dispersed peacefully after an hour. Opposition officials said plainclothes police had blocked sideroads and prevented many supporters from joining the demonstration.

That appeared to mark the effective end of the opposition's campaign to oust Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994.

Lukashenko insisted the vote was fair, and said it was his defiance of the West that brought him victory.

"The West made a mistake concerning the processes in Belarus. It pushed itself into a corner," he said at a news conference in Minsk.

But he said now that he had won, he was ready to take part in NATO exercises and cooperate with the U.S. and European governments and international financial institutions.

And he promised to resolve what happened to several prominent figures who have disappeared. Former security officials in recent weeks have accused government-sponsored death squads of killing Lukashenko critics, a charge Lukashenko denies. "There is no taste of blood in my elegant victory," he said.

The OSCE called for the international community to reassess its approach to Belarus so that democratic forces could flourish. Western governments have ostracized Lukashenko in response to his crackdown on the opposition and independent media.

"The isolation of the country is not in the best interest of the Belarus people and is not conducive to strengthening democratic development," the monitors said in a statement. "Our institutions are ready to cooperate with anyone in this country who has the real will to promote democracy, to integrate this country into European structures," said Adrian Severin, chairman of the OSCE parliamentary assembly.

Goncharik claimed fraud. "This is clear falsification caused by replacing ballots during early balloting and at closed polling stations," he said at a news conference. He said that according to the opposition's vote sampling, his share of the vote was about 40 percent, while Lukashenko got about 46 percent, below the outright majority needed for victory in the first round.

"It's not an ?elegant victory,' as Lukashenko put it, but an elegant forgery," Goncharik said. He said that human rights activists trying to conduct their own count were detained Sunday and questioned by the KGB.

Balian said the OSCE, Europe's top vote-monitoring organization, was concerned about the independence of the Central Election Commission in Minsk and the early voting system, which allowed citizens to cast their ballots beginning Tuesday and may have opened the way to fraud.

Balian added that OSCE monitors were able to observe polling stations but could not scrutinize how results were fed to Minsk.

The head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, defended the early voting, saying it was part of the Belarussian "national character." Speaking at a news conference, Veshnyakov said "no one has any serious reason" not to accept the results of the election.

"It is impossible to say that the election campaign in Minsk did not meet international standards, taking into account the standards that exist today," Interfax quoted him as saying. He said these standards were "unclear" and "morally outdated."

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said "elections that are not fair cannot be recognized." A spokesman, Philip Reeker, said the Belarussian government used intimidation and interfered with the media. He said United States would consult with European nations on what steps might be taken.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, speaking in Copenhagen, said, "We would like to deal with this in a very serious way." He would not elaborate.

Despite the widespread concerns, a re-run appeared unlikely. The Belarussian Central Election Commission said it would consider any complaints, but Yermoshina dubbed the opposition's vote sampling an "escapade."

Sunday was Lukashenko's first electoral test since 1996, when he pushed through a referendum that extended his five-year term by two years, a vote the U.S. and others refused to acknowledge.

President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko over the telephone Monday, the Kremlin press service said, and the two leaders pledged further cooperation in forming a union.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed Lukashenko's victory, saying he is a man who "thinks about the people and the country," Interfax reported.

(AP, Reuters, MT)