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Thousands protest Belarus election

Main opposition calls for rally today

MINSK, Belarus -- Thousands of demonstrators crammed into a downtown plaza yesterday to protest incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko's expected election victory, defying the authoritarian regime's threats to show no mercy to demonstrators and vowing to work for Lukashenko's ouster.

The scene on Oktyabrskaya Square was reminiscent of the demonstrations that led to the toppling of autocratic leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. With busloads of police just a block away, throngs of Belarussians waved the banned white-and-red former national flags and filled the plaza with chants of ''Long Live Belarus!" and ''Freedom!"

Government tallying handed Lukashenko a landslide victory over the election's main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich. With all the votes counted, Lukashenko won with 82 percent of the vote, Belarus election officials announced. Milinkevich had 6 percent.

However, an exit poll by the Levada Center, a respected Russian polling organization, gave Lukashenko 47 percent, which would not have been enough to prevent a runoff election with Milinkevich. The Levada poll had Milinkevich with 26 percent of the vote.

Just how long Milinkevich and other opposition leaders can sustain the demonstrations remained unclear. The 58-year-old physics professor called on Belarussians to mass again in the downtown plaza today. Still, the show of defiance on the plaza by an estimated 10,000 Belarussians gave Milinkevich a major, unexpected victory.

Belarussians have lived under fear during Lukashenko's 12 years in power. Students are routinely expelled from universities for attending political meetings. Lukashenko's political opponents have been jailed for organizing rallies, which often have been brutally dispersed by truncheon-wielding police.

Last night, however, Belarussian security forces deployed throughout the downtown area were never called in to stop the protests. His hair soaked with melted snow, a jubilant Milinkevich appeared on the steps of a government building adjoining the square and reveled in the moment, waving blue, pink, and red carnations in the air, a reference to his request that demonstrators hand flowers to police if the authorities tried to break up the rally.

''We have overcome our fear by coming to this square today," Milinkevich told the crowd. ''We are demanding new, honest elections. These elections were a complete farce."

Demonstrators appeared divided on the question of whether plaza rallies would ignite the kind of popular uprisings seen in other former Soviet republics. Alyona Shestkova, 25, said the size of the crowd buoyed her optimism. ''It's time for us to get out of the swamp and bring about some change in this country."

Other demonstrators, however, said the atmosphere in Belarus remains too repressive -- and the Lukashenko regime too entrenched -- for any kind of significant change to occur.

''We're not going to see the same kind of change that we saw in Ukraine," said Mikhail Saknov, a 19-year-old economics student. ''The government simply will not allow this."

In recent weeks, Lukashenko sought to cripple Milinkevich's team, arresting more than 300 of the challenger's supporters. Ten of Milinkevich's campaign staff members remained in jail over the weekend. And he sought to intimidate Belarussians into staying away from the plaza last night. On Friday, the Belarussian KGB warned that any demonstrations on election night would be considered acts of terrorism.

Andrei Dumansky, 30, was one of thousands of Belarussians who received anonymous text messages Saturday on their cellphones warning that ''provocateurs" were planning violence on the square. Like many Belarussians, Dumansky suspected that the government was trying to intimidate people into avoiding last night's demonstrations.

''What fools," said Dumansky outside the polling station at School No. 85 in Minsk, after voting for the ''against all candidates" choice on the ballot. ''They're just making the situation more tense."

Milinkevich consistently vowed to ensure that demonstrators did not provoke confrontations with the police. At a news conference at his campaign headquarters yesterday afternoon, he told reporters: ''We're against revolutions that involve violence. We want peaceful demonstrations. We're going to tell people about the results of the election -- we're going to tell them the truth."

From the start, Milinkevich built his strategy around organizing street protests of the election results rather than on defeating Lukashenko at the ballot box, largely because opposition leaders as well as critics in the West were convinced that Lukashenko would preordain a landslide victory.

Milinkevich and the other three challengers in yesterday's election were virtually denied media access, while Lukashenko dominated airtime on Belarus's television stations. What few independent newspapers are left in Belarus saw thousands of their newspapers seized. Several Belarussians who said they voted for Lukashenko yesterday said they did so because they knew little about Milinkevich or his proposals.

In Lukashenko, Milinkevich faced an authoritarian incumbent who has built a strong core of support, particularly from older Belarussians and those who live in rural regions.

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