Posted: 20 Dec 2010 07:32 AM PST
REUTERS - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who began a fourth term as president on Monday after big street protests against his re-election, is a Soviet-style strongman who portrays himself as a man of the people while muzzling dissent.
The burly former state farm boss has dominated the ex-Soviet republic since taking office in 1994, doling out generous welfare and pensions from a command economy underpinned by cheap Russian gas and tax-free crude oil.
On Sunday, he secured nearly 80 percent of the vote in a poll that his opponents say was rigged and which brought tens of thousands out in protest on the streets.
Several presidential candidates and hundreds of opposition supporters were being held on Monday after riot police broke up opposition protests.
The moustachioed, blunt-speaking 56-year-old was dubbed Europe's "last dictator" by the Bush administration and has been equally treated as a pariah by the European Union for most of his rule.
But he has equally irked the Kremlin by his eccentric style of rule and has snubbed Moscow, Belarus's chief benefactor, several times on foreign policy issues.
Analysts say his overtures now to the West are motivated by concern for the sustainability of Belarus's Soviet-style command economy, but they see only cosmetic concessions to the West.
A keen ice hockey player, Lukashenko is proving himself adept at playing one side off against the other, reflecting the location of the country of 10 million people sandwiched between Russia and the European Union and NATO.
But he could face a rougher ride over the next five years. He patched things up with Moscow before the election with a deal over oil and gas pricing, but the ceasefire is short of a peace deal.
The European Union, three of whose member states border Belarus, will want to capitalise and press Lukashenko for economic and political liberalisation.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the democracy and rights watchdog, on Monday condemned vote counting in the election as "flawed" and said the police had been too violent in dealing with demonstrators.
In typical combative style, Lukashenko hit back, defending the police, dismissing members of the opposition as being bent on "banditry" and denouncing the OSCE verdict as "amoral".
Lukashenko has used such straight speaking to good effect to burnish his image at home as a down-to-earth man of the people and father of the nation.
"SEVER BUT FAIR"
Severe but fair", is how he describes himself. His opponents, on the other hand, are "enemies of the people."
Reviled by the West and the domestic opposition for jailing critics and throttling independent media, Lukashenko enjoys broad support in rural areas and among older voters, many of whom know him affectionately as 'batka', or father.
"I am not ideal, I am a normal person just like you," he is fond of telling people.
His aversion to reform is a major draw with voters scared of economic experiments and the perceived harshness of capitalism.
In 1991, Lukashenko was the only member of Belarus's parliament to vote against the treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union. He shot to prominence two years later with an acid election campaign that demonised the country's leaders and propelled him to the presidency in 1994.
He has shown no sign of rescinding power since.
Lukashenko is married but lives separately from his wife, with whom he has two grown up sons. He has a third child, Nikolai, who is about six years of age.
The president has courted controversy by frequently taking Nikolai on official business and state visits. In 2009, the pair wore matching camouflage caps and uniforms to meet Belarussian generals, who were obliged to salute both father and son.
On Sunday, Nikolai, wearing a suit, cast his father's ballot.
(Writing by Matt Robinson and Richard Balmforth; editing by Mark Heinrich)
Copyright © 2010 Reuters
Posted: 20 Dec 2010 07:32 AM PST
MINSK (Reuters) - At least seven election candidates and hundreds of opposition demonstrators were being held on Monday after police cracked down on a protest against the re-election of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who immediately came under fire from international election monitors for flawed vote counting and police heavy-handedness, accused demonstrators of banditry.
"There will be no revolution or criminality in Belarus," he said, adding that security forces had stood firm against "barbarism and destruction" by militants.
Lukashenko also described criticism by an observer mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the democracy and human rights watchdog, as amoral.
After a night of mayhem in central Minsk involving riot police and thousands of demonstrators, the central election commission declared in the early hours that Lukashenko, in power since 1994, had secured nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Opposition parties say supporters of the 56-year-old former Soviet state farm director had rigged his re-election at the vote counting stages, much as they had in 2006.
In a verdict that could have implications for Belarus's future relations with the West and the European Union, the OSCE mission described the election vote count as flawed and said police action against demonstrators had been heavy-handed.
"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed," Tony Lloyd, head of the short-term OSCE observer mission told a news conference.
A positive judgment by the OSCE had been seen as key to possible EU financial aid for the ex-Soviet republic's economy.
A combative Lukashenko said the OSCE had no right to look at events outside the election itself. "We did everything they had asked of us," he told a news conference just an hour after the OSCE had delivered its verdict.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton criticised the violence and called for authorities to release those arrested. Poland and Germany also expressed concern over the vote.
However, a parallel observer mission from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States gave the election a clean bill of health.
In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the election was an "internal matter" for Belarus. He did not comment on the police crackdown.
In a Belarus Interior Ministry statement, police justified their action, saying protesters had tried to storm the main government building.
On Sunday night up to 10,000 people marched through the snow-bound capital chanting "Out!", "Long Live Belarus!" and other anti-Lukashenko slogans in one of the most significant challenges to his iron-fisted, 16-year rule.
Then riot police waded in, beating people with batons on Independence Square. Some protesters in the ex-Soviet republic threw stones and snowballs at police.
THREAT OF JAIL
Several people were left sprawled on the ground. Others were bundled into police cars.
One opposition leader, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten by police who fired into the air to disperse a column of supporters trying to join the main rally.
His wife, Olga, said he was later taken by police from his hospital bed, where he had been recovering from head injuries. She had tried in vain to find out from the authorities where her husband was. "They either answered that they didn't know, or wouldn't answer at all," she told the OSCE news conference.
Apart from Neklyayev, 56-year-old Andrei Sannikov and at least five other candidates out of the nine who ran against Lukashenko were being held, the pro-rights Vyasna (Spring) website and opposition aides said.
The state prosecutor's office said some protest leaders could face up to 15 years in jail for stirring mass unrest.
The Interior Ministry statement, focusing on an attempt by some demonstrators to break down the door of a government building, said: "A peaceful meeting grew into an attempt to seize the building of the Council of Ministers by storm."
Many demonstrators had been drunk and the police had later recovered wooden sticks, metal bars and empty bottles, it said.
The EU is weighing how far to engage with the country of 10 million on its eastern flank, amid tension between Lukashenko and chief benefactor Russia.
Lukashenko crushed dissent in the early years of his rule, jailing opponents and muzzling the media. The administration of former U.S. President George Bush called him Europe's "last dictator".
Under Lukashenko, Belarus's command economy has been propped up by energy subsidies from Russia. The country serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to Europe.
But relations with Moscow have been on the rocks in recent years and the EU has been dangling the prospect of financial aid if Sunday's vote was deemed fair.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth and Matt Robinson; additonal reporting by Lidia Kelly, Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw, Luke Baker in Brussels, Brian Rohan in Berlin and Denis Dyomkin in Moscow; editing by David Stamp)
Copyright © 2010 Reuters
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