WATCH: Thousands of protesters gathered in Minsk soon after the polls closed on December 19. Security forces forcibly dispersed the crowd. Hundreds were detained.By RFE/RL
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has won a fourth term in office in an election marred by violence and claims of massive falsification.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Lidiya Yermoshina, announced that Lukashenka won a decisive first-round victory with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
But the sweeping official victory was accompanied by brutal violence, as police and security forces clashed with opposition demonstrators, beating and arresting hundreds of people, including seven of the nine presidential candidates facing off against Lukashenka.
Speaking at a news conference in Minsk, Lukashenka said more than 600 people had been arrested and declared the clashes over.
"I state here authoritatively: The wars in our country ended yesterday," he said. "There will not be any more tolerance of attempts to destabilize the situation in the country."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that there was a small demonstration in the capital's Independence Square on December 20, with some 20 to 30 young protesters gathering. Within a few minutes, police disbanded the gathering, beating and pushing the activists into police vans.
On December 19, one of the presidential candidates, 64-year-old Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, was arrested while lying in a hospital bed after being beaten unconscious by security forces during the protests.
Nyaklyaeu's wife, Volha, said men in civilian clothes later entered her husband's hospital room and forcibly carried him out without identifying themselves.
Concerning Nyaklyaeu's current whereabouts, Lukashenka said: "Should a current president know where a former presidential candidate is? Excuse me, but if you want to see him -- he is in the detention center."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported late on December 20 that two of the seven presidential candidates arrested on December 19 -- Ryhor Kastusyou and Dzmitry Vus -- had been released.
The unrest has sparked angry condemnations from foreign officials. In Brussels, a statement by EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the beatings and arrests, "in particular the beating and detention of several opposition leaders, including a number of presidential candidates, and she calls on the authorities to release those arrested."
The U.S. Embassy in Belarus and the Lithuanian and Polish Foreign Ministries also criticized the violence. Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, demanded that Lukashenka punish those responsible, saying it "casts a shadow over the presidential election."
Opposition candidate Andrey Sannikau lies on a street after being beaten by police.
Western election observers from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly were likewise critical, saying that while actual voting on election day had passed relatively smoothly, the vote-counting process was suspect and the government reaction to the protests "heavy-handed."
"I had very much hoped that this time we would be able to make a more positive assessment," said Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission. "Unfortunately, this is not possible in light of the flawed vote count and the authorities' heavy-handed response to yesterday's demonstrations."
Tony Lloyd, the head of the short-term observer mission, said the brutal crackdown during the protests "swept away" the incremental reforms that had been witnessed before the election.
"The violent attacks and arrests of most of the presidential candidates, as well as hundreds of activists, journalists, and civil society representatives, is the backdrop against which this election will now be judged," he said. "The people of Belarus deserved better."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley called on authorities in Minsk to "release immediately those detained." He added, "We caution authorities to use restraint in the coming days and not to harm, threaten, or further detain those exercising their basic rights."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "The actions taken over the last 24 hours...are a clear step backwards on issues central to our relationship with Belarus."
Meanwhile, Russian news agencies reported that Lukashenka has vowed to release secret documents proving that the Belarusian opposition was supported by "western partners."
He said the release of the classified documents would be "historic," and would be published in the coming days on a "Belarusian WikiLeaks site."
Moscow's assessment of the vote was favorable. An observer mission from the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) said the conduct of the election was legitimate. And President Dmitry Medvedev said the vote was an "internal matter" for Belarus and a potential step forward in its development.
"I hope that as a result of these elections, Belarus will be a modern state, will continue to develop along the path of building a modern state based on democracy and friendship with its neighbors," Medvedev said.
Nevertheless, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed official from the Russian Embassy in Minsk as saying that attacks on accredited Russian journalists covering the election were "not always justified."
The embassy has also requested a list of Russian citizens detained during the postelection protests.
Lukashenka said that Belarus had moved past recent tensions in relations with Russia and vowed to "endure all hardships so that we do not split with Russia."
The postelection violence surprised many Belarus-watchers, coming as it did after a relatively quiet campaign season with a long and diverse candidate list. It is certain to dampen hopes for closer ties between Lukashenka and the EU, which sees Belarus as an important buffer against Russia and had offered Minsk a $3 billion aid package in return for a clean vote.
Lukashenka, whose relations with both the West and Russia are chronically fractious, is seen as frequently playing each side against the other. In this instance, a last-minute deal with Moscow overturning a crippling $4 billion energy export tax may be seen as Lukashenka putting himself in Moscow's corner, possibly relieving him of obligations to provide a free and fair vote to the West.
Independent polls indicate Lukashenka, while still a powerful and charismatic leader, does not enjoy the groundswell of support that his official 80 percent returns suggest.
Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina: Protesters "crossed a line."
A poll conducted by Polish-supported Belsat Television just ahead of the vote suggested that Lukashenka's support was as low as 30 percent, a number that would have fallen far short of the 50 percent needed to clear a first-round win.
The Belsat poll suggests that, if forced into a second round, Lukashenka might have faced possible defeat at the hands of one of the opposition candidates, who would have the collective backing of more than 40 percent of the voters.
The Belarusian government has been quick to respond to the violence as a case of unprovoked aggression on the part of the opposition. In a televised address, Lukashenka said his country had carried out a "dignified" election and defended the police as standing firm against "barbarism and destruction" in the postelection unrest.
Election Commission Chairwoman Yermoshina said the protesters had "crossed a line" and showed "that standards of behavior have gone down considerably."
Yaraslaw Ramanchuk, one of the few presidential hopefuls who was not arrested, criticized other candidates for leading demonstrators to Minsk's Independence Square and attempting to storm the House of Government, the building housing the parliament, government, and Election Commission.
Ramanchuk said he had repeatedly tried to persuade Andrey Sannikau and Mikalay Statkevich, in particular, to give up "plans of radical actions." WATCH: A video journalist working for RFE/RL's Belarus Service was among those attacked by police. The journalist captured the confrontation on camera:
But the source of the violence remains unclear. Video footage from the protests -- which briefly swelled to some 20,000 people -- shows a large but peaceful crowd that dissolved into violence only after some people in the crowd tried to storm the government building, breaking windows and glass doors. Only then did riot police surround the building, beating protesters with truncheons and loading them into police vehicles.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service quoted Vitaly Rymasheuski, one of the presidential candidates arrested during the violence, as blaming "drunk provocateurs" for the violence.
An unnamed protester, speaking to RFE/RL, said the demonstrators were largely peaceful and that it was a separate "group of people" who attacked the government building as plainclothes security forces looked on.
"Who's behind this provocation? Was it the special services? Was it a fraction of the demonstrators? Was it an instruction from the candidates to break the glass? That I never heard," the protester said. "There was no such instruction. What there was was a call to start negotiations with officials."written by Daisy Sindelar, with RFE/RL's Belarus Service and agency reports