MINSK, Belarus – Thousands of protesters thronged the main square of the Belarusian capital on Sunday in defiance of a government ban, refusing to recognize a presidential vote that gave a landslide — and largely expected — victory to the iron-fisted incumbent.
At the opposition demonstration in the capital's main square — the largest in years — protesters chanted "Long Live Belarus!" and the name of the main opposition candidate. Some waved a historic flag that President Alexander Lukashenko had replaced with a Soviet-style design, while others waved European Union flags.
Lukashenko won a third term with 82.6 percent of the vote, compared with 6 percent for Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, the Central Election Commission chief said early Monday, citing a nearly complete preliminary count from Sunday's balloting. Turnout was 92.6 percent, the commission said.
"We demand new, honest elections," Milinkevich told the crowd Sunday evening. "This was a complete farce."
Milinkevich called on the crowd, which began thinning under a heavy snow, to return to the square Monday evening — signaling the opposition would try to hold a sustained protest of the sort that brought down long-lived regimes in former Soviet republics including Ukraine and Georgia.
"It will be a peaceful demonstration. We will come out with flowers," Milinkevich said earlier in the day, after voting.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, had promised to prevent the kind of mass rallies that helped bring opposition leaders to power elsewhere.
The use or threat of force neutralized opposition efforts to protest vote results in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan last year, and a government crackdown in Uzbekistan left hundreds dead.
Despite the government ban, police did not move to disperse the crowd. The gathering was the biggest the opposition had mustered in years, reaching at least 10,000 before it started thinning out, according to AP reporters' estimates.
"The Belarusian mentality is to sit home and watch their stupid state TV," said one protester, who gave only his first name, Ivan, for fear of reprisals. "I came to hear a brave man speak."
People blew horns and shouted "Mi-lin-ke-vich!" — echoing the much larger crowds on Kiev's Independence Square in neighboring Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, which inspired the Belarus opposition.
"I came here to find out the real results of the election," said Veronika Danilyuk, a 19-year-old student. "I believe that he's the only one who can guarantee freedom and fairness to our country."
The Soviet past is palpable in Belarus. The government makes five-year plans, the main state newspaper has "Soviet" in its title and the state security service is officially called the KGB.
Underlying the election is a struggle for regional influence between Russia and the West, which is seen by Lukashenko's government and its backers in Moscow as a major culprit in the political upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
Lukashenko accuses the West of plotting a repeat in Belarus, one of the few former Soviet republics still loyal to the Kremlin.
Alexander Kozulin, another opposition candidate, demanded authorities release what he said were hundreds of opposition activists detained during the campaign.
The elections were being overseen by about 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"These elections will be recognized neither by us nor by democratic countries," Milinkevich told a news conference earlier in the day.
Western countries have forged close ties with the opposition and made no secret of their contempt for the ruler of what Washington calls an outpost of tyranny in Europe. The United States has condemned the campaign as "seriously flawed and tainted."
Lukashenko dismissed international criticism.
"We in Belarus are conducting the election for ourselves," he said. "What is important is that elections take place in accordance with Belarusian legislation. As for sweeping accusations, I've been hearing them for 10 years. I've already gotten used to them."
After announcing the vote results, the elections chief, Lidiya Yermoshina said Milinkevich's criticism of the official tally was "nothing more than a bluff, a desire to save face."
"But one has to know how to lose — especially a man," she said.
The state has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations of violent, foreign-backed overthrow plots that its opponents say is aimed at frightening people and justifying the potential use of force against protesters. Security was tightened Sunday near the square and streets were closed to traffic.
On Thursday, the KGB chief accused the opposition of plotting to seize power with foreign help by detonating bombs and sowing chaos on election day, and warned that protesters could be charged with terrorism.
Since 1994, Lukashenko has silenced foes and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by the opposition and Western governments. Four opponents disappeared in 1999-2000.
Many Belarusians nonetheless see the 51-year-old former collective farm manager as having brought stability following the 1991 Soviet collapse. While the landlocked nation, about as big and flat as Kansas, is far from prosperous, the economy is growing and salaries are rising.
Even independent opinion polls suggested Lukashenko would win overwhelmingly.
"Everyone's for him, all my friends," said Stanislava Rodnya, a 78-year-old retiree.
Critics say the economic successes are unsustainable, based largely on cheap Russian energy and heavy-handed state intervention reminiscent of the communist era.
"Milinkevich gives us hope that we will pull ourselves out of this swamp," said Nina Karachinskaya, a 38-year-old hairstylist. "The country must go not into the past but the future, and our future is Europe."