MINSK – Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has dismissed Western criticism after police violently dispersed thousands of demonstrators following the exclusion of two top challengers in the country's election next month.
"We don't want anyone to tell us how to live,” Lukashenka said while meeting with local leadership in the eastern city of Vitsebsk on July 15.
The 65-year-old leader, who is seeking a sixth consecutive term in a presidential election on August 9, vowed to “defend our country with all legal means."
“Neither Maidans nor revolutions will help us," Lukashenka said, referring to the mass anti-government protests in neighboring Ukraine known as Euromaidan that toppled Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
As he spoke, at least 2,000 people formed a line stretching 1 kilometer to file complaints with the Central Election Commission (CEC) in Minsk following its decision not to register two prominent opposition figures for the presidential election.
The act of protest -- the latest in a string of expressions of popular discontent against the strongman – ended when police dispersed those in line and detained at least 16 people. RFE/RL correspondent Anton Trofimovich and BelaPAN freelance correspondent Violeta Savchyts were among those detained.
Lukashenka's comments came a day after police detained 301 people, including two RFE/RL reporters and at least 12 other journalists, in Minsk and other towns amid protests against the election commission eliminating key candidates. Some of the detained individuals were later released.
The Investigative Committee said on July 15 that it had launched a criminal case into what it called "organizing and participating in public disturbances in Minsk."
The CEC on July 14 allowed five candidates to officially register for the ballot, including Lukashenka.
But it struck down the candidacy of a possible major rival, Viktar Babaryka, a former bank manager recently put in jail on embezzlement charges that he and his campaign say are politically motivated.
According to the CEC, Babaryka was not registered because inconsistencies were allegedly found in his income and property declaration and because a foreign organization had allegedly taken part in his election campaign.
Valer Tsapkala, a prominent businessman and former Belarusian ambassador to the United States, was also disqualified from running.
Events in Belarus have drawn criticism from the United States and the European Union, which in recent years have eased sanctions slapped on the country over its human rights record as part of a nascent rapprochement with Lukashenka.
“We are deeply concerned about the reports of mass protests and detentions of peaceful activists and journalists. So we are going to continue to do what we can to urge the government of Belarus to improve its record on human rights and democracy and to meet its Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) requirements,” U.S. Secretary of State spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told RFE/RL in an interview on July 15.
“We know that free and fair elections are about more than just what happens on the election day. We think it is incredibly important for the government to provide a level playing field for everyone who wants to take part in the elections. That includes access to media," Ortagus added.
On July 14, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that "the seemingly arbitrary exclusion of candidates limits the possibility for the Belarusian people to express their will and already undermines the overall integrity and democratic nature of the elections."
The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Europe’s election watchdog, said on July 15 it would not send monitors for the election after failing to receive a "timely invitation."
Expressing concern that Belarus had not addressed problems previously identified in the electoral process, the ODIHR urged Minsk to take "concrete and immediate steps to protect the exercise of fundamental freedoms."
It also expressed concern that prospective candidates had been intimidated and opposition activists arrested, undermining the prospects for a democratic election.