As ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko claims victory in the Presidential election, Sarah Hurst reports on clashes with riot police and the future of popular protest

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Tens of thousands of people across Belarus protested and clashed with riot police last night as official exit polls in the presidential election gave Alexander Lukashenko almost 80% of the vote. His main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has claimed victory, and the long lines at polling stations indicate that she won decisively.

An unofficial exit poll conducted by 76 activists who spoke to 85,500 people gave Tikhanovskaya 72.1% and Lukashenko 13.7% of the vote. Results reported by embassies in overseas voting reflected the unofficial result. 

Earlier in the day a video emerged of a polling station official in Minsk coming out of a window and climbing down a ladder carrying a bag of what might have been ballot papers.

Tikhanovskaya was greeted by a cheering crowd when she arrived at another polling station to cast her vote. Performance artist Alexei Kuzmich entered a Minsk polling station wearing a raincoat and came out of the voting booth wearing only a loincloth, then assumed the pose of Jesus on the cross with red marks on his hands and feet, and held up his ballot paper with a drawing of a penis on it. He was subsequently taken in for questioning by police.

Voters reported finding tiny dots on their ballot papers in the box for Lukashenko. A vote for anyone else would mean the ballot was spoilt, as there would be two marks on it.

People gathered outside their local polling stations when polls closed, clapping election officials in some districts where the votes appeared to have been counted honestly and booing those who reported a win for Lukashenko. Later they gathered in city squares and shouted “Go away!”, directed at Lukashenko.

In Minsk, hundreds of police and military vehicles had been deployed. Police used water cannon and stun grenades and fired rubber bullets to try to disperse the crowds, who stayed out until the early hours. One police van drove into a protester at high speed. Authorities said about 3,000 people throughout the country were arrested.

Today Lukashenko said the election went off “like a festival” and accused several countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and the UK, of organising the protests. He denied shutting down the internet so that footage of police violence couldn’t get out, blaming foreign countries for that too. China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov were among the authoritarians who congratulated Lukashenko on his “win”.

The EU called on Lukashenko to ensure that votes were counted fairly, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called for an emergency summit on Belarus, saying, “The authorities have used force against their citizens, who are demanding change in the country. We must support the Belarusian people in their quest for freedom.”

Belarusians don’t show any sign of giving up, with the 12,000 workers at the Belarusian Steel Works (BMZ) announcing a strike and people preparing to take to the streets again this evening.

The question now is whether the country will see a scenario similar to what happened in Ukraine in 2014 and Armenia in 2018, when leaders eventually gave in, or if it will be more like Venezuela, with Lukashenko hoping people will become exhausted after months of protests.

Either way, we could be in for a long haul. 


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