Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian president, declared on Monday that foreign-backed attempts to overthrow him had failed, claiming a crushing victory in elections that international observers condemned as seriously flawed.
More than 3,000 demonstrators had gathered in the capital, Minsk, by early evening for a second night-time protest, as Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, continued calls for a rerun of Sunday’s poll.
But the numbers were initially fewer than the 5,000 people who defied official threats of violence and arrest to rally on Sunday night – the biggest demonstrations in Minsk for a decade. The protests seemed unlikely to escalate to the levels that brought about revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr Milinkevich said opposition exit polls suggested the Belarus president won less than the 50 per cent required to secure victory in a single round of voting, though official figures on Monday gave him 82.6 per cent. The opposition said their data showed Mr Milinkevich scored 30 per cent, five times his official total.
Mr Lukashenko’s victory is likely to increase the international isolation of a regime the US has labelled “Europe’s last dictatorship”. The White House said on Monday night it did not accept the vote, and European Union foreign ministers denounced the elections as “neither free nor fair”.
Though EU ministers failed to agree on an immediate response, targeted sanctions, including broadening of existing visa bans on top Belarusan officials, as well as possible asset freezes, are likely to be agreed next month.
The Belarus poll also suggested the wave of pro-democracy revolutions that swept Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan has lost momentum. In three recent elections in former Soviet republics – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and now Belarus – the opposition has failed to overturn regimes accused of authoritarianism.
Diplomats and civil society groups have warned that Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power for 12 years, is likely to use a new five-year term to crush remaining opposition and independent media.
“What is important is the trend away from democracy and towards dictatorship and a totalitarian regime,” said one senior Western diplomat in Minsk. “The significance of the election lies in the psychological impact it will have on Mr Lukashenko.”
The Belarus president on Monday exuded confidence, telling a Soviet-style victory press conference the elections were “honest and free”.
“The revolutionary project that was talked about and was prepared in Belarus has not happened,” he said. He dismissed demonstrators in Minsk as “freaks” and said the idea of international sanctions against Belarus was “absurd”.
“You can’t isolate a country at the heart of Europe,” Mr Lukashenko added.
But EU ministers endorsed the damning findings of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s 476-strong observer mission.
The mission’s report found that Mr Lukashenko had “permitted state authority to be used in a manner which did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will”.
It said statements by the Belarusan KGB associating the opposition with terrorism and accusing it of planning a coup had led to a “climate of intimidation”. Campaign workers and opposition figures had been subject to “physical assaults, detention and even imprisonment”.
“I would have liked nothing more than to be able to make a positive statement about the election,” said Geert Ahrens, head of the OSCE mission. “Unfortunately, there were too many serious violations.”