Poll day turns violent in Belarus

Police armed with batons disperse opposition demonstrators as incumbent president looks set for re-election.

Belarus protests
Opposition supporters took to the streets of Minsk calling for an end to Lukashenko’s rule [AFP]

As many as 10,000 protesters have taken to the streets of Minsk, the Belarussian capital, and police beat an opposition leader, ahead of what appeared to be a near-certain election victory for Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s incumbent president.

Police dispersed the crowds on Sunday, beating people with batons, witnesses said, as demonstrators fled in all directions.

Dozens of protesters were injured in the clashes, left bruised and bloody after being beaten by police.

Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet and one of the main opposition candidates who ran against Lukashenko, was taken to hospital with a head injury after police broke up a march he was leading.

Late on Sunday, thousands of opposition supporters gathered outside the Central Election Committee in Minsk’s Independence Square to hold an impromptu open-air rally, calling for an end to Lukashenko’s 16-year rule.

Protests dispersed

Some demonstrators broke the glass doors to the government building but were restrained by others in the crowd, according to a Reuters reporter.

“Down with the rule of Lukashenko, freedom for Belarus!” Andrei Sannikov, the head of the popular opposition site Charter 97 and a presidential candidate, told the rally.

Neave Barker, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, reporting from the scene, said police had quickly arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowds.

“Earlier on there was pretty much no sign of police but quite swiftly once crowds started gathering here riot police surrounded the [election commission] building and started pushing back the crowds,” he said.

“I saw at least a couple of injured people dragged out of the crowd, some of them with obvious head injuries.”

Re-election likely

Exit polls show Lukashenko is likely to win a fourth term in office, with over 79 per cent of the vote, according to one pro-government pollster.

Opposition candidates and rights activists said five senior campaign workers and 27 opposition activists have been detained since Saturday. Police refused to comment.

Michael Binyon, a former Moscow corespondent for The Times, cautioned that Lukashenko still had support, despite the protests.

“Among many ordinary people I wouldn’t say there is widespread support [for the opposition], they’re pretty resigned to seeing Lukashenko continue in office,” he told Al Jazeera.

“And he’s not completely unpopular because Belarus has enjoyed a stable standard of living – it’s not a high standard of  living at all, but they’ve avoided some of the confrontations and disruptions that they’ve seen in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Pensioners for example still get a reasonable pension.”

International engagement

Lukshenko has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994, with the economy propped up by energy subsidies from the country’s chief ally Russia.

But relations with Russia have deteriorated in recent years, and Lukshenko is thought to be turning more towards the West.

The European Union has dangled the prospect of $3bn in financial aid if Sunday’s vote is deemed fair, and is weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million people that serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to Europe.

It will take its cue from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors who report back on Monday.

The OSCE said earlier that the election already appeared “better” than in 2006, when the opposition launched a protest and occupied the main square for five days.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies