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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smaller Crowd Rallies on 2nd Night

APLukashenko telling reporters Monday that a "revolution" had been averted.
MINSK -- Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the center of Minsk on Monday for a second night, many hoping their protest would gather momentum and help overturn presidential election results Western observers have denounced as blatantly fraudulent.

But their numbers were about half of the 10,000 on election night, and prospects for a Ukraine-style Orange Revolution seemed remote.

Authorities put on a show of force, with busloads of riot police fanning out into nearby streets and courtyards and preventing people from approaching the city's main square.

Police had only a small and unobtrusive presence at the protest the previous night.

President Alexander Lukashenko, declared the overwhelming winner of weekend elections, said earlier in the day that his opponents had failed to topple him in a foreign-backed "revolution."

President Vladimir Putin called Lukashenko to congratulate him on winning, and the Russian Foreign Ministry declared the election fair.

But international observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards; Europe's main human rights organization described it as a "farce"; and the United States called for another election.

Still, the leverage of the international community seemed limited, and even many of the protesters appeared to have little appetite for a prolonged vigil and a possibly violent confrontation.

Some 5,000 gathered in Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad in the capital's center on Monday night. The diminished size of the crowd suggested the opposition was losing momentum, but Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition presidential candidate and symbolic heart of the protests, called on the demonstrators to gird for a lengthy campaign. He is demanding an election rerun.

"Our protest will be long and strong," he said. "We will never recognize this election. It's not an election but an anti-constitutional seizure of power."

On the square, a 45-year-old woman who gave her name only as Irina said she was scared about the prospect of bloody police action, but "if Lukashenko stays in power, it will be even worse."

Lukashenko has vowed not to allow any attempt to create a mass uprising like those in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan that helped bring opposition leaders to power over the past two years.

The chief electoral official said Monday that Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, won a "convincing victory" with 82.6 percent of the votes -- a number Milinkevich called "monstrously inflated."

"In Belarus, we did not have an election but an unconstitutional seizure of power," said Milinkevich, who official results said won 6 percent.

He repeated his demand for a new vote.

His appeal was backed by the United States. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the election was flawed by a "climate of fear," and hinted that penalties such as travel restrictions "are things we will look at."

"We support the call for a new election," McClellan told reporters on Air Force One as U.S. President George W. Bush flew to Ohio for a speech. "The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus."

By contrast, Putin on Monday congratulated Lukashenko and said the vote results would help strengthen the alliance of the two nations. Putin said in a telegram to Lukashenko that the vote "highlighted voters' trust in your course aimed at strengthening the welfare of the Belarussian people," the Kremlin said in a statement.


Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Milinkevich and his wife attending a rally of about 5,000 people late Monday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry applauded the outcome, saying, "There is every reason to believe that the election has been held in conformity with universally recognized standards, and its legitimacy is beyond any doubt.

"The Belarussians have clearly expressed their will, and it must be viewed with respect," the ministry said.

A handful of liberal activists gathered outside the Belarussian Embassy in Moscow to support the opposition. One carried a sign reading, "Lukashenko! There is a free place in The Hague for you now!" -- a reference to the recent death of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Lukashenko scorned the opposition, calling the election "honest and democratic" and saying voters had shown "who's the boss" in Belarus.

"The revolution that was talked about so much ... has failed," he said at a nationally televised news conference.

"You have seen our opposition, and if you are reasonable people you have been convinced that it's worthless," Lukashenko said.

He repeated his allegations that the opposition is backed by Western forces plotting to bring him down.

Lukashenko called on the opposition to halt protests, saying the vote showed that he has overwhelming support. "We must accept the decision of the people," he said.

He asserted that Sunday's protest leaders were in the pay of Western ambassadors and claimed there was no crackdown because the opposition was weak. "Who was there to fight with? Nobody, understand? That's why we gave them the opportunity to show themselves, even though it was illegal."


Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

In Moscow: "Lukashenko! There is a free place in the Hague for you now!"

The observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that the election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.

"Arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression," the OSCE mission said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said the opposition "was systematically intimidated" during the campaign, and the EU threatened diplomatic and financial sanctions against Belarus' leaders.

The Council of Europe, Europe's main human rights organization, called the election "a farce."

Lukashenko said he was "not afraid of further isolation," adding: "If the EU wants problems here, it will have them."