Monday, March 20, 2006

Thousands -- flying banned flag -- stage election protest in Belarus capital

From The Irish Times:

Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in the centre of the Belarus capital, Minsk, last night accusing the government of rigging elections after early results predicted a landslide victory for president Alexander Lukashenko.

Despite police road blocks around the city and in the city centre, a crowd of eight to 10 thousand mostly young demonstrators managed to get to October Square, some unfurling red and white banners which had been the national flag until Mr Lukashenko replaced it with a red and green flag in the 1990s.

"This is our national symbol, the real one," said 21-year-old Nastia Korotkaya, a student from Minsk.

Her friend, Pavel Krupsky (22), holding the other end of the banner, said: "We want a free government."

The protesters blocked traffic for a while, then moved to the steps of a theatre on the edge of the square. State television, which broadcast pictures of the president on a giant screen at the far end of the square, did not transmit pictures of the demonstration.

Protesters shouted "Free Belarus" and "Freedom". Asked about warnings from the Belarus security service, which retains its Soviet-era acronym the KGB, that they would treat such protests as "terrorism" both students said they were not afraid. "I think the police are with the people," said Ms Korotkaya.

She turned around to show me the empty backpack where she had hidden the flag. "We put it in there because otherwise the police would take it," said Mr Krupsky.

Across the square was evidence of careful planning for the rally. Groups of young people had smuggled flags into the square by wrapping them around their bodies. These were fitted to slender telescopic flag poles, which had been concealed in the trouser legs or under the jackets of the protesters.

"They say we are enemies, terrorists, I think this is terrible," said Mr Krupsky. "I don't believe in our constitution." Long before voting ended, two pro-government institutes had issued "exit polls" showing Mr Lukashenko capturing more than 80 per cent to about 4 per cent for his main rival.

Main opposition hopeful Alexander Milinkevich denounced the election as fraudulent. "The results will be unrealistic and falsified," Mr Milinkevich told reporters. "We will not recognise them and nor will democratic countries. This is already clear."

Mr Lukashenko, known as "batka" or father, tells Belarussians he has offered stability and remains popular among elderly and rural voters. The central elections commission said 81 per cent had cast ballots by 4pm (1400GMT), far above the 50 per cent mark needed to make the election valid.

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