PRAGUE, March 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Estimates put the strength of today’s rally at several thousands.
Protesters were reportedly fewer than yesterday, when an estimated 10,000 demonstrators turned out on that same square on election night.
Addressing the crowd, opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich called upon supporters to remain on the square all night. While the demonstrators began erecting small camping tents, he asked them to call friends and relatives so that they would bring warm clothes and hot tea.
"We don’t recognize the election results. In Belarus there was no election, but an unconstitutional seizure of power."
Security forces confiscated one tent, but demonstrators managed to erect five or six others.
There were no immediate reports of violence despite a heavy police presence.
Flags, Chants, And Security Cordons
An RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent reports from the scene that security forces have cordoned off the square.
As the rally was beginning, riot police streamed into the area in a bid to prevent pedestrians from reaching the square. Additional security forces moved in later.
Protesters chanted "Freedom," "Motherland," "Long Live Belarus!" "We Shall Win!" and Milinkevich’s name. Others lit candles and waved flags adorning the traditional red and white colors of Belarus.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich leads the post-election demonstration in October Square on election night (epa)
A Belarusian pro-opposition website (Khartiya '97) says live music and RFE/RL's live newscasts were streaming out of makeshift loudspeakers planted on the square. It also says a number of Ukrainian activists attended the rally.
Yuriy Shadiy chairs a Ukrainian nongovernmental group known as Students Brotherhood, which is headquartered in Ukraine’s northwestern border region of Rivne. He told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service his organization held a symbolic protest at the border with Belarus today.
"In order to support [the Belarusian opposition], we today held an action at the border," Shadiy said. "We were advised to not enter Belarus. So we held a protest picket near Ukraine’s border checkpoint. We were 20. We waved the Belarusian [red-and-white] national flag. We also made a puppet meant to represent the Belarusian leaders that symbolize the conservativeness of the Soviet power that prevails today in Belarus."
'An Unconstitutional Seizure Of Power'
According to the official tally released today by the Central Election Commission, incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka won a third term in office with 82.6 percent of the votes.
Milinkevich, who placed second with an official six percent, claims the vote is fraudulent. Today, he accused Lukashenka of seeking to remain in power through unconstitutional means.
"We don’t recognize the election results. In Belarus there was no election, but an unconstitutional seizure of power," the opposition leader said. "The country’s current leader had no right to run because there was not a legitimate referendum in 2004 [to eliminate presidential term limits] and the conditions in which the election took place were illegal and repressive."
Commenting on the election night rally, Milinkevich said it heralded a new era in the history of post-Soviet Belarus.
“Our country hadn’t seen such a rally for 10 years. What it tells us is that more people and more people in the country are getting rid of this fear that humiliates them.”
Putin Sends Congratulations…
But Lukashenka today claimed victory over his opponents, whom he accused of seeking to overthrown his government through street protests similar to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, or Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
"The virus of 'color revolutions' affects weakened countries in which those in power are stuck in corruption and turn a deaf ear on people's concerns. Belarus has a strong immunity, which is based on effective power, a strong social policy, and a dynamic economy that does not serve individual oligarchs, but the welfare of all the people."
Russian President Vladimir Putin today congratulated Lukashenka on his re-election, saying the official results show that voters have "confidence" in his policies.
Russia and Belarus 10 years ago set up a union state. Although this union state exists mainly on paper, it illustrates the intimacy of the ties that exist between both countries.
…While Washington Condemns Result
By contrast, the United States today condemned the outcome of the March 19 vote.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Washington is ready to throw its weight behind the Belarusian opposition.
"We support [the opposition's] call for a new election. We will stand with the people of Belarus and back their aspirations to take their rightful place among the world's democracies," McCormack said. "The United States is preparing to take serious, appropriate measures against those officials responsible for election fraud and other human rights abuses and will be coordinating these steps with the European Union. We call on the regime in Belarus to release immediately those detained during the campaign. The international community will continue to scrutinize the actions of the Belarusian authorities, and we caution them not to harm, threaten, or detain those exercising their political rights."
Also today, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the poll did not meet democratic elections standards.
In Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said the bloc would probably consider sanctions against Belarusian officials responsible for the shortcomings of the election.
The EU has already imposed travel bans on six Belarusian government officials and said last week it would lengthen this list if the election turned out to be rigged.
Click on the image to view a photo gallery of election-day events in Belarus.
THE BELARUS ELECTION: To view a complete archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the March 19 presidential election, click here.
To read and listen to RFE/RL's Belarus Service's coverage of the vote in Belarusian, click here.