The Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has won a predicted landslide victory in presidential elections, giving the 61-year-old a fifth term in power, amid signs the EU may be willing to relax sanctions against him.
Lukashenko, once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the Bush administration, has been in office since 1994 and shows little sign of releasing his grip on power in the former Soviet republic. He won 83.5% of the vote, higher than ever before, while his nearest rival, Tatiana Korotkevich, managed just 4.4%.
International monitors said the election fell short of democratic standards, while long-established opposition politicians boycotted the vote and said the candidates who did stand against Lukashenko were regime-approved spoilers.
A few hundred people protested in central Minsk on Sunday night, chanting: “Down with Lukashenko”. The protests were much more muted than after the last election, five years ago, when thousands took to the streets and were brutally dispersed by riot police. A number of opposition candidates were subsequently jailed.
Uladzimir Neklyayev, a candidate in the 2010 election, joined with other opposition politicians on Sunday evening to denounce the elections as a farce.
“This is a mockery of the people, of the citizens of Belarus. We call on the international community to brand what happened on 11 October as such, and under no circumstances to recognise the election results,” he said.
Kent Hasted, head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s observer mission for the election, said: “It is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments. The recent release of political prisoners and a welcoming approach to observers were positive developments. However, the hope that this gave us for broader electoral progress was largely unfulfilled.”
He expressed particular disappointment over shortcomings during the counting and tabulation of votes.
However, in an atmosphere of mistrust of Russia, Lukashenko’s continuing game of playing Moscow and Brussels off against each other appears to be paying dividends once again, with EU sources suggesting sanctions against Minsk could be lifted in the election’s aftermath.
Lukashenko released six political prisoners in the runup to the vote and hopes the EU will lift the sanctions, which must be renewed or scrapped by 31 October, later this month. Diplomatic sources said if there was no violence following the election, it would be possible for them to be lifted.
Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko on his “convincing victory” on Monday morning, and said he hoped the two leaders would work together to continue building their “strategic partnership”. Belarus is a founding member of Putin’s Eurasian Union, an economic bloc of former Soviet states for which Moscow also has political ambitions.
But Lukashenko has appeared worried by the bloodshed in Ukraine, and recently rejected plans to host a Russian airbase on Belarusian soil. He has also played the peacemaker in Ukraine, hosting several rounds of talks on ending the conflict, including receiving the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, in February for talks with Russian and Ukrainian leaders.
Lukashenko enjoys genuine popularity in Belarus, partly ensured by a tight grip on media coverage and his ruthless tactics against opposition politicians and activists, many of whom have spent time in jail. Over the past two years, the bloodshed in neighbouring Ukraine has led to renewed appreciation of the “stability” which Lukashenko heralds as one of his main achievements.
He appears to be grooming his 11-year-old son, Nikolai, as his successor. The boy is pictured everywhere with his father, including at state events, and the pair posed for a photograph with Barack and Michelle Obama during the recent UN general assembly meeting in New York. Nikolai cast his father’s ballot for him on Sunday.
Source: The Guardian