March 19, 2006

Hard-line incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was headed to an overwhelming win in Sunday’s presidential vote in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, the elections chief said. Thousands of opposition supporters demonstrated in the city’s main square.

The Associated Press news agency reports that the protesters chanted “Long Live Belarus!” and the name of the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich. Some waved a national flag that Lukashenko banned in favor of a Soviet-style replacement, while others waved European Union flags.

The crowd hooted when a large video screen showed a live statement from the head of the Central Election Commission, who hailed the vote as a success with minimal violations.

Milinkevich arrived later.

Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina said Lukashenko won 92.2 percent of the vote in hospitals and military units, where about 1.2 percent of the nation’s eligible voters cast ballots. She said overall results were unlikely to differ greatly from those numbers.

Earlier, two exit polls gave Lukashenko more than 80 percent of the vote. The polling was done by two groups that critics say are loyal to Lukashenko, and those figures were certain to fuel opposition claims of fraud and compound Western concern about the authoritarian government’s conduct of the election.

“People will laugh at those figures,” Milinkevich said earlier. “In Poland, people began laughing at communist authorities and this is when Solidarity won. We are getting there.”

Lukashenko had vowed to prevent the kind of mass rallies that helped bring opposition leaders to power in former Soviet republics Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan following disputed elections.

The Soviet past is strongly palpable in Belarus. The government makes five-year plans, the main state newspaper has “Soviet” in its title and the state security service is officially called the KGB.

An exit poll by the EcooM organization gave Lukashenko 82.1 percent of the vote and Milinkevich just 4.4 percent, EcooM chief Sergei Musiyenko said.

Exit polling by another group, the Belarusian Committee of Youth Organizations, gave Lukashenko 84.2 percent and Milinkevich 3.1 percent, group representative Alexander Yushkevich said on state television.

Milinkevich said he would not recognize the results and called for a repeat vote.

“These elections will be recognized neither by us nor by democratic countries,” Milinkevich told a news conference.

Underlying the election is a struggle for regional influence between Russia and the West, which is seen by Lukashenko’s government and its backers in Moscow as a major culprit in the political upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Lukashenko, who has been in office 12 years, accuses the West of plotting a repeat here. Belarus is one of the few former Soviet republics to remain loyal to the Kremlin.

The elections commission said 81 percent of the 7 million eligible voters had cast ballots by noon, clearing the 50 percent mark needed to make the election valid. Yermoshina said about 30 percent voted last week in early balloting, which is seen by the opposition as especially vulnerable to fraud.

Yermoshina said voters were resisting “alien influence” seeking “to hinder our election process.”

The elections were being overseen by about 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Western countries have forged close ties with the opposition and made no secret of their contempt for the ruler of what Washington calls an outpost of tyranny in Europe. The United States has condemned the campaign as “seriously flawed and tainted.”

After voting at a sports facility, Lukashenko dismissed international criticism.

“We in Belarus are conducting the election for ourselves,” he said. “What is important is that elections take place in accordance with Belarusian legislation. As for sweeping accusations, I’ve been hearing them for 10 years. I’ve already gotten used to them.”

The state has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations of violent, foreign-backed overthrow plots that its opponents say is aimed at frightening people off the streets and justifying the potential use of force against protesters. Security was tightened Sunday near the square and streets were closed to traffic.

Since his first election in 1994, Lukashenko has silenced foes and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by the opposition and Western governments. Four opponents disappeared in 1999-2000.

While he is a dictator to his opponents and foreign critics, many Belarusians see the 51-year-old former collective farm manager as having brought stability after the uncertainty that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse. While the landlocked nation, about as big and flat as Kansas, is far from prosperous, the economy is growing and salaries are rising.

“He gives us work and a salary,” said plumber Igor Nisakov, 52, a Lukashenko supporter.

Critics say the economic successes are unsustainable, based largely on cheap Russian energy and heavy-handed state intervention reminiscent of the communist era.

Milinkevich, 58, a former physicist, said he aimed to show that change was possible.

“Milinkevich gives us hope that we will pull ourselves out of this swamp,” said Nina Karachinskaya, 38, a hairstylist. “The country must go not into the past but the future, and our future is Europe.”

Even independent polls said Lukashenko, who has pushed through a referendum scrapping term limits and hinted he plans to stay in office indefinitely, could win a majority of the vote.

The United States and European Union have called on both sides to avoid violence.