Clashes erupt after disputed Belarus election

Protesters and riot police have clashed in Belarus’s capital Minsk and other cities, after a state TV exit poll said long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected in Sunday’s election.

Police used stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon. A human rights group said one protester was killed and about 120 arrested.

Mr Lukashenko won 80% of the vote, according to a preliminary count.

But the main opposition leader says she does not trust the official figures.

“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told reporters late on Sunday. The preliminary results give her 9.9% of the vote.

Ms Tikhanovskaya entered the election in place of her jailed husband and went on to lead large opposition rallies.

Mr Lukashenko, 65, has been in power since 1994.

The lead-up to Sunday’s poll saw a crackdown on activists and journalists amid the country’s biggest opposition demonstrations in years.

How did the protests unfold?

Demonstrators took to the streets in central Minsk as soon as voting ended late on Sunday.

Many chanted “Get out” and other anti-government slogans. Riot police fired stun grenades, used batons, and made arrests as they dispersed the demonstrators.

Early on Monday, Valentin Stefanovic from the Belarusian human rights group Viasna, told Reuters news agency that at least one person had died after being knocked over by a police van and dozens had been injured.

He added that at least 120 people had been detained.

Similar protests took place in Brest, Kobryn, Zhodino and other cities.

What’s the context?

Sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator, President Lukashenko was first elected in 1994.

In the last vote in 2015, he was declared winner with 83.5%of the vote. There were no serious challengers and election observers reported problems in the counting and tabulation of votes.

This year’s election is being held amid growing signs of frustration at his leadership.

The campaign saw the rise of Ms Tikhanovskaya, 37, a former teacher who became a stay-at-home mother until she was thrust into the political spotlight.

After her husband was arrested and blocked from registering for the vote, she stepped in to take his place.

In the lead-up to the election she told the BBC that people in Belarus did not believe the election would be run fairly.

“But I still believe that our president will understand that his time is over. People don’t want him any more,” she said.

President Lukashenko has dismissed Ms Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.

Tens of thousands defied an escalating crackdown on the opposition last month to attend a protest in Minsk, the largest such demonstration in a decade.

Since the start of the election campaign in May, more than 2,000 people have been detained, according to Human Rights Centre Viasna.

On the eve of the vote Ms Tikhanovskaya’s team said her campaign manager had been arrested and would not be released until Monday.

And on Sunday, as people voted, internet service was significantly “disrupted”, according to omline monitor NetBlocks. Opposition supporters say this makes it harder for evidence of election fraud to be collected and shared.

There were already concerns over a lack of scrutiny because observers were not invited to monitor the election and more than 40% of votes were cast ahead of election day.

Was anyone else running?

There were three other candidates:

  • Anna Kanopatskaya, a former MP who won a rare seat for tthe opposition in parliamentary elections in 2016
  • Sergei Cherechen, the leader of the Social Democrat party
  • Andrei Dmitriyev, the co-chair of the Tell the Truth movement, a campaign group which has been raided by the authorities

Two key opposition figures were barred from running and threw their weight behind Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.

One of them, Valery Tsepkalo, fled Belarus ahead of the contest, fearing arrest. His wife Veronika stayed behind, becoming a key campaigner for Ms Tikhanovskaya.

It emerged on Sunday that Ms Tsepkalo had also now left Belarus for Moscow, for “safety” reasons.

Anger towards Mr Lukashenko’s government has been in part fuelled by the response to coronavirus.

The president has downplayed the outbreak, advising citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease.

Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, has reported nearly 70,000 cases and 600 deaths.


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