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Archive for Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Belarus election condemned at home, in West

March 21, 2006

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— The United States called for a new vote and the European Union threatened sanctions on Belarus, where thousands of opposition supporters gathered in the capital for a second night Monday to protest President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election.

But the number of demonstrators was smaller than on election night, and prospects for a Ukraine-style "Orange Revolution" appeared remote as many of the protesters appeared to have little appetite for a prolonged vigil and a possibly violent confrontation with police.

Lukashenko said Monday that his foes had failed to topple him in a foreign-backed "revolution."

With overnight temperatures at 28 degrees, protesters set up a dozen small tents and vowed to turn the demonstration into a round-the-clock presence. Most of the tents were draped with historic national flags favored by critics of Lukashenko, who has scrapped them for a Soviet-style version.

"This is our last chance," said Vladimir Fivsky, a 20-year-old student who had wrapped one of the red-striped white flags around his shoulders and wore a pin in the same colors saying: "For Freedom!" He said came to the square to protest because he "had enough" after 12 years of Lukashenko's repressive rule.

U.S., EU consider sanctions

The Bush administration called for new elections after independent observers said the election did not meet standards for a free and fair vote.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the election was flawed by a "climate of fear," and hinted that penalties such as travel restrictions "are things we will look at."

"We support the call for a new election," McClellan said. "The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus."

A series of punitive measures will be discussed with the EU, the State Department said. These could include widespread limits on financial assistance to the Minsk government.

The EU said it was likely to impose sanctions, notably a wider travel ban on top political leaders in Belarus, including Lukashenko.

Resurgent Russia

By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenko in a telegram and said the results would help strengthen the alliance of the two former Soviet nations.

Putin could see his influence grow in another former Soviet states, as well, as allies could return to government in Sunday's Ukrainian parliamentary election, just over a year after the Orange Revolution.

For Putin, asserting dominance over Belarus and Ukraine appears to be part of his strategy to re-establish Moscow as a global player during his year of the G-8 presidency.

"Russia wants to restore its superpower status, and that includes putting these countries back into its orbit," said Yevgeny Volk, Moscow director of the conservative U.S think tank Heritage Foundation.

Russia was furious at what it saw as Western encroachment on its home turf after Ukraine's November 2004 Orange Revolution - the mass protests over election fraud that brought reformist opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to power over the Kremlin's favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

Months later, the impoverished Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution, becoming the third former Soviet state within 18 months to see opposition forces topple a Soviet-era leader. Georgia's Rose Revolution started the process in 2003.

Today, however, Russia is once again on the rise as nervous authoritarian regimes from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan - where rights groups say government troops killed hundreds of civilians in a crackdown on protesters last year - build closer ties to Moscow, partly as a way to cow opposition forces.

Even in Ukraine, disillusionment at political infighting and the economic collapse that followed the Orange Revolution have brought about a political comeback for Yanukovych, whose rigged victory in the 2004 presidential election was annulled by the Supreme Court.

Enjoying strong support in the Russian-speaking east, his party is poised to win the most seats in the new parliament and earn the right to form the government, even if it will probably need to govern in an uneasy coalition with the party of the pro-Western Yushchenko.

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