Several hundred opponents of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko rallied against his re-election for a fourth day on Wednesday, pressing opposition calls for a re-run of a poll they say was rigged.
The protest, unprecedented for ex-Soviet Belarus, where the security service usually cracks down quickly on dissent, started on Sunday after Lukashenko was announced as the winner of a poll branded by independent monitors as neither free nor fair.
Lukashenko, criticized by the opposition and the West for his Soviet style of rule during 12 years in power, won Sunday’s elections with an official vote tally of 82.6 percent.
Nearest rival Alexander Milinkevich, who won 6 percent of the vote, called the poll fraudulent.
About 600 protesters, expected to be boosted again by thousands of supporters in the evening, braved icy winds overnight to keep a vigil at a central square in the capital Minsk where a huge rally will take place on Saturday.
Riot police disappear
Fears of a possible crackdown eased on Wednesday morning after riot police mostly disappeared from nearby streets where they had been stationed on Tuesday. Many demonstrators expressed puzzlement that the police had not moved in.
“Frankly, I am surprised (the authorities) have not crushed the protest yet,” Galina, a 21-year-old student who declined to give her surname, said as she put a blanket on top of her coat to beat the cold in October Square.
The result in Sunday’s election has set the United States and other Western countries at odds with Russia. Washington, echoing the findings of international poll monitors, has accused Lukashenko of intimidating opponents while Moscow has congratulated him.
The protest has had strong echoes of the highly organized 2004 “Orange Revolution” that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in neighboring Ukraine. But there has been no sign of the demonstration reaching the same scale.
Milinkevich has urged his supporters from across Belarus to join the Saturday rally at October Square to mark the independence day of a short-lived Belarussian republic in 1918.
But during his visit to the square, packed with mostly young protesters who have erected around 20 tents there, he sounded a pessimistic note.
“I do not think that such protest can unseat a dictator,” he told reporters, adding that the main point of the rally was to show that Belarussians were wakening to opposition calls.
'Something is simmering in the pot'
Some participants at the rally said that despite unusual tolerance of the opposition, police had not stopped their practice of harassing activists.
Yuri, a 21-year-old student who spent the night at the rally, said at least a dozen young men were briefly detained after leaving the square and told not to come back.
“We told policemen that we will be here until (March) 25th,” Yuri said, referring to the planned opposition rally. ”’You will not survive until then’, the cops replied.”
“’You do not know what will happen on the 24th’, they said,” he added. “It looks like something is simmering in the pot.”
Lukashenko, 51, said his victory marked the failure of an opposition bid to mount a pro-Western coup in Belarus, which has a population of about 10 million and borders European Union members Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
Russia, to the east, is Belarus’s main trading partner.
Lukashenko, a former state farm director, says his rule has spared Belarus the social turmoil and hardship that has beset other former Soviet states.
Belarus, or “White Russia,” became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 but a push to revive the Belarussian language and culture was crushed by Lukashenko. He reinstated many Soviet-era symbols, including a flag.