President Alexander Lukashenko has won an apparent landslide victory of 82% in the Belarusian presidential election on Sunday 19 March, the largest majority in the twelve years of his reign.
The two opposition candidates, Alexander Milinkevich (6%) and Alexander Kazulin (2.3%), were unconvinced and called for the election to be rerun. In front of a peaceful crowd of around 10,000 supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Oktabrskaya Square in Minsk on Sunday evening, Milinkevich described the election as "a complete farce".
Also in openDemocracy on Belarus's election:
Amy de Wit, "Belarus on the eve"
Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need"
A triumphant Lukashenko hailed the "undisputed victory of the power of the spirit, of the national dignity, and of the self-respect of the Belarusian people". His message to anyone trying to usurp him from office was that he would "break (their) neck like a duckling". Before the election, rumours had spread of militia being transferred to Minsk from the regions, and of neuro-paralysing gas and snipers being placed on the rooftops round Okatabrskaya. The language of the government, branding potential protestors as "terrorists" who might face the death penalty, was ominous.
More than 300 opposition activists were arrested in the week before the election, including many of those leading Milinkevich's campaign. On election-day itself, young people from the regions traveling to Minsk by train and bus were stopped by police in an effort to prevent mobilisation and protest.
Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of Austria (which currently holds the EU presidency) described such tactics as part of "a climate of intimidation". At the monthly meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 20 March, she called the situation "upsetting". Poland's deputy foreign minister Stanislaw Komorowski said: "It is evident that Belarus's elections were not free and fair. The EU must act."
Poland has requested a strengthening of sanctions which (Komorowski emphasised) should not harm the regular citizens of Belarus. The options include a visa ban on Belarusian officials and a freezing of the country's financial assets held abroad.
Belarus has an uneasy relationship with most of its neighbours, especially Poland itself. Only Russia, even more unwilling after the "orange revolution" in Ukraine to see yet another of its former territories moving out of its orbit, has ostensibly friendly relations. Belarus conducts about 60 % of its foreign trade with Russia, receives up to $3 billion a year in subsidies from Russia, and is dependent on imports of oil and gas which largely come from its giant neighbour. Such dependency, allied to Belarus's relatively weak national identity, has kept alive the suggestion that a "reunification" is possible. This is unlikely: an apparently independent Belarus is a useful conduit for Russia's more unsavoury activities (and Vladimir Putin, in public at least, is notably undemonstrative towards Lukashenko).
But the close links between the two countries make it unsurprising that observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have already pronounced the election "free, open and transparent", and cited only minor flaws in the election process (some polling booths were, it seems, "too narrow"). Vladimir Rushailo, head of the CIS delegation to Minsk, chose to criticise the attitude of the international community: "Biased statements and harsh opinions, as well as warnings about readiness to impose various political and economic sanctions on Belarus that were voiced by several countries ahead of the election are regarded by the CIS observers as an intention to affect the election process at the final stage of the presidential election."
The 450 election observers from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released an initial assessment on 20 March saying that the elections were "severely flawed due to arbitrary use of state power and restrictions on basic rights". Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin are urging supporters to sustain their protest demonstrations, despite interior-ministry threats that the organisers of the election-night rally will face charges.
Whether thousands will brave snowstorms and the threat of violence for the second night in a row is at present unclear. If they do, Milinkevich could yet claim last night's demonstration as a turning-point in the history of the country, as he did at a press conference today: "This means that we have really woken up in another country, a country with more people ready to stand up for their future and the future of their children."