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Belarus Elections End With Landslide Winner — And Massive Protests

Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaks at a news conference Monday in Minsk, Belarus, after the Belarusian presidential election.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaks at a news conference Monday in Minsk, Belarus, after the Belarusian presidential election.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opposition candidate in Sunday's presidential election in Belarus, is refusing to accept the landslide victory declared by the five-term incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko.

The release of an official exit poll that predicted a Lukashenko win prompted a long night of violent demonstrations. Fifty protesters and 39 law enforcement officers were injured in the Sunday night violence, and more than 3,000 were arrested, according to the Belarusian Interior Ministry.

On Monday, Tikhanovskaya appeared before journalists in the capital, Minsk, pledging not to leave the country but also declining to assume the role of protest leader when asked about her plans.

"The authorities aren't listening to us; they are completely detached from the people," she said. "We are for peaceful change, and the authorities should think about how to transfer power peacefully."

According to preliminary results announced by Belarus' Central Election Commission, Lukashenko took 80% of the vote, with Tikhanovskaya coming in second with 10%. But Tikhanovskaya disputed those figures. She said that her campaign staff had seen results from more than 50 polling stations and that her share of the vote exceeded Lukashenko's by many times.

The euphoria of Tikhanovskaya's campaign, when thousands of voters enthusiastically received her as she barnstormed across the country, has vanished. Tikhanovskaya told journalists she didn't know how to react to the government's harsh response to the protests — but that she had decided her presence at demonstrations could lead to an escalation of violence.

Tikhanovskaya, a political novice, campaigned on the simple pledge to hold new, free and fair elections if she won. She decided to run against Lukashenko after her husband was jailed and prevented from registering his candidacy. Tikhanovskaya joined forces with two other challengers — Viktor Babariko, who is in pretrial detention on fraud charges, and Valery Tsepkalo, who fled Belarus over safety concerns.

After the demonstrations, the Interior Ministry denied reports of one death Sunday night as "a complete fake." Meanwhile, investigators said they were opening criminal cases into the organization of and participation in civil unrest, an offense that carries a prison sentence of eight to 15 years.

The U.S. government said it is concerned about the conduct of the election, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "was not free and fair."

"We urge the Belarusian government to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force, and release those wrongfully detained," Pompeo said in statement. "We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters."

The European Union — three members of which border Belarus — condemned the "disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters" and appealed for a fair vote count by the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Poland called for a special EU summit to discuss the violence.

Lukashenko is used to criticism from the West. The last U.S. ambassador to Minsk left in 2008 amid a crackdown on the Belarusian opposition. Recently Lukashenko has reached out to the United States to counter pressure from the Kremlin for closer political and economic integration. Pompeo visited him in February, and a new U.S. ambassador is expected in Minsk later this year.

Lukashenko was defiant after the violence, calling the protesters "sheep" who were controlled by foreign puppet-masters. He said he saw no need to hold talks with Tikhanovskaya.

Protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police early Monday in Minsk after the presidential election.
/ AP
Protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police early Monday in Minsk after the presidential election.

"Our response will be appropriate," he said during a visitto a new animal feed plant outside Minsk. "We won't let the country be torn apart."

Chinese President Xi Jinping was the first foreign leader to congratulate Lukashenko on his reelection, followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.