Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has always ignored his foreign critics, saying he did not need the West's imprimatur on his style of governance. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored Belarus's presidential vote yesterday, said the election failed to meet Western standards of democracy -- principally due to the unbalanced campaign which preceded it. But the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights tells RFE/RL he has no evidence of any rigging on voting day and concedes Lukashenka is here to stay.
Prague, 10 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The war of words between the OSCE and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which escalated throughout the election campaign, appears to have ended with Sunday's vote. And Lukashenka, it would seem, has emerged the winner.
Gerard Stoudman, head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, tells RFE/RL from Minsk that the election failed to meet international standards. Among the reasons he cited was the fact that opposition candidates received far less media coverage and had far less opportunity to reach the electorate with their platforms than incumbent Lukashenka. Campaign conditions were hardly equal for all candidates.
But Stoudman says so far there is no evidence of electoral fraud and thus no reason to doubt the Central Electoral Commission's figures, which gave Lukashenka 75 percent of the vote. Voters might have been ill-informed, intimidated, or simply lured by the offer of free transportation or cheap vodka at polling stations, but they appear to have voted overwhelmingly in favor of their president.
"I have no evidence of manipulation of the figures, but it is too early to speak about that because it's too fresh and we don't have all the elements, but I have no evidence. In a state which controls completely its population and the social structure, like in the good old days of the Soviet Union, it is very easy to organize an election with the results that you want, without having to rig and manipulate the figures. In other states of the former Soviet Union, where the old Soviet structures have collapsed and where the regime is not so much in control of the population, the temptation to stay in power through manipulation of the figures during polling day is much bigger."
Stoudman's evaluation will come as a blow to the opposition, which united behind trade union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk. Hancharyk called his 15 percent official showing at the polls a blatant fraud and urged his supporters to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. But Stoudman indirectly advises against such a move. Asked what the opposition should do, Stoudman offered some advice:
"They should not give any pretext for repression, this is [number] one. Second, I believe that we are just at the beginning of a very long process and the issue, let's face it, is that there is still a lot of support in the countryside for the president -- Lukashenka."
During the electoral campaign, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry accused the head of the OSCE's mission in Belarus, Hans Georg-Wieck, of being a spy. Lukashenka had equally unkind words for Wieck and even vowed to kick him out of the country. But speaking yesterday, following the vote, Lukashenka struck a more conciliatory note:
"The presidential elections are over. We confronted each other head to head. The result is clear. Let's recognize this result, in a civilized way, and start anew to build our relations."
Stoudman tells RFE/RL that the OSCE is keen to continue its work in Belarus, including possibly establishing more fruitful contacts with the Lukashenka administration:
"We hope very much that we will continue to work with Belarusian civil society, with the political structures, the NGOs, and including the authorities -- this is not at all excluded."
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenka over the telephone today. The Kremlin press service said the two leaders pledged further cooperation in their countries' union. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze also sent a congratulatory telegram to the Belarusian leader.
In neighboring Lithuania, parliament speaker Arturas Paulaskas says the election outcome had not been a surprise. Paulaskas said the election campaign proved Belarus remained far from democratic.
"I believe there were never any great doubts about how the election would end, what the results would be. At least, I didn't have any great doubts that Lukashenka would win. It is clear that there is no new dawn in the life of this country in the near future."
But he adds bilateral contacts should be maintained so that the Belarusian people do not feel ignored or isolated.
Echoing those comments, a British Foreign Office spokesman, contacted by RFE/RL, said London had "taken note" of the OSCE's initial findings that the election did not meet Western democratic standards. But he said Whitehall would make no further comment until the OSCE issued its final report. Poland's Foreign Ministry, contacted by RFE/RL, refused to comment.