Unrepentant Lukashenko defies West over crackdown

MINSK Tue Dec 21, 2010 12:22am IST

Riot police block opposition supporters during a rally denouncing the results of presidential elections near the Parliament building in central Minsk December 19, 2010. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Riot police block opposition supporters during a rally denouncing the results of presidential elections near the Parliament building in central Minsk December 19, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko vowed on Monday to thwart any attempt at "revolution" after police broke up mass protests against his re-election and arrested his opponents.

In a defiant speech following Western criticism of Sunday night's crackdown on opposition rallies, Lukashenko said there would be no more "senseless democracy" in Belarus.

At least seven out of his nine election challengers and hundreds of opposition demonstrators were being held in detention after the crackdown and an early morning sweep of homes of known dissidents by KGB state security officers.

They included his main challenger, Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet. He was arrested while recovering in hospital after being beaten on Sunday night by police, his wife said.

Lukashenko, 56, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, was officially declared victor with nearly 80 percent of the vote after a night of mayhem in central Minsk involving riot police and thousands of demonstrators.

The opposition said the vote was rigged and the real level of support was far lower. A European observer mission said the vote count had been flawed and the police action heavy-handed.

But Lukashenko was defiant.

"There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus," he told a marathon news conference, adding that security forces had resisted "banditry" and militants bent on destruction.

And he warned opposition media that they would be answerable "for every written word" of criticism from now on.

In a verdict certain to affect Belarus's ties with the West and the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assessed almost half of the vote counts that its observers monitored as "bad" or "very bad."

"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," Tony Lloyd, head of the short-term OSCE observer mission told a news conference.

A positive judgment by the OSCE, Europe's main election and human rights watchdog, had been seen as key to possible EU financial aid for the ex-Soviet republic's economy.

Lukashenko hit back, saying: "We did everything they had asked of us."

"LAST DICTATOR"

Opposition parties say supporters of the former Soviet state farm director, dubbed Europe's "last dictator" by the Bush administration, rigged the vote count, much as they did in 2006.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton criticized the violence and called for authorities to release those arrested.

Washington condemned the violence and did not regard the election result as legitimate, the State Department said.

Poland and Germany also expressed concern.

However, a parallel observer mission from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States gave the election a clean bill of health.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the election was an "internal matter." He did not comment on the police crackdown.

Belarussian police justified their action by saying protesters had tried to storm the main government building.

On Sunday night up to 10,000 people marched through the snowbound capital chanting "Out! Out!," "Long Live Belarus!" and other anti-Lukashenko slogans.

Then riot police beat people with batons on Independence Square. Some protesters threw stones and snowballs at police.

Several people were left sprawled on the ground. Others were bundled into police cars.

GOVERNMENT BUILDING ATTACK

State-run Belarussian TV focused particularly in its footage on some demonstrators who tried to break down the door of a government building.

"A peaceful meeting grew into an attempt to seize the building of the Council of Ministers by storm," an Interior Ministry statement said.

It said many demonstrators had been drunk and the police had recovered wooden sticks, metal bars and empty bottles.

Apart from Neklyayev, 56-year-old Andrei Sannikov and at least five other candidates out of the nine who ran against Lukashenko were held, the pro-rights Vyasna (Spring) website and opposition aides said.

One of them, nationalist Grigory Kostusev, was later released.

Neklyayev's wife, Olga, said he was taken by police from his hospital bed, where he had been recovering from head injuries.

She had tried in vain to find out from the authorities where her husband was. "They either answered that they didn't know, or wouldn't answer at all," she told the OSCE news conference.

Asked specifically by a journalist about Neklyayev, Lukashenko replied: "If you want to talk to him, you'll be made welcome in his solitary confinement cell."

He later said: "There will be no more senseless democracy in the country ... We are no longer going to be trying to please people. We don't have to bow down to them (the West)."

Lukashenko's uncompromising tone suggested little immediate future for warmer relations with the European Union.

Lukashenko crushed dissent in the early years of his rule, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

But amid tension between Lukashenko and his chief benefactor, Russia, the EU has been weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million on its eastern flank.

Under Lukashenko, Belarus's command economy has been propped up by energy subsidies from Russia. The country serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to Europe.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth and Matt Robinson; additional reporting by Lidia Kelly, Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw, Luke Baker in Brussels, Brian Rohan in Berlin and Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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