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Belarus strongman keeps grip on power after vote

Dec. 20: Central Elections Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Ermoshina, second from left, speaks during a news conference in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term with nearly 80 percent of the vote, election officials said Monday, hours after truncheon-wielding riot police dispersed thousands of demonstrators who protested alleged vote fraud. (AP)

The country's autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko appeared to have quashed any immediate threat to his continuing rule, declaring Monday that he was the overwhelming winner of a presidential election that ended with a violent crackdown on reformists hoping for change.

No demonstrations occurred in the capital, Minsk, on Monday night, an indication that things were returning to normal in Belarus, one of the most authoritarian of the former Soviet states and which the U.S. once labeled Europe's last dictatorship.

Lukashenko exercises overwhelming control over politics, industry and media in this nation of 10 million bordering Poland and the Baltic nations. The repression has been an embarrassment to the European Union, which offered 3 billion euros ($3.9 billion) in aid to Belarus if the elections were judged to be free and fair.

Lukashenko's autocratic style was on display at his first postelection news conference at which he criticized opposition candidates for refusing to tolerate the brutal excesses of the Belarusian police.

"What a disgrace. They wanted to become presidents. What kind of president are you if you are whacked in the face and you cry blue murder? Why are you howling? What kind of president are you? You should put up with it!"

One of the top opposition candidates, Vladimir Neklyayev, was beaten in a clash with government forces as he tried to lead a column of supporters to a mass protest Sunday night. He was taken to a hospital, and an aide said seven men in civilian clothing wrapped him in a blanket on his hospital bed and carried him away as his wife screamed.

Lukashenko said Neklyayev was with investigators "giving evidence."

Hopes for improved democratic reforms had already dissipated as international observers and Western governments accused Lukashenko of using fraudulent counting and violence against protesters to keep himself in power. Elections officials declared Lukashenko got almost 80 percent of the vote in a preliminary count, handing him a fourth term in office.

"A positive assessment of this election isn't possible," said the OSCE observer mission's head, Geert-Hinrich Ahrens.

The run-up to Sunday's election had raised a glimmer of hope that Lukashenko was relaxing his grip after more than 16 years in office. The number of candidates was unprecedented. They were allowed comparative freedom to campaign and were even allotted time for debates on state media. Belarus passed some election code reforms, joined a European Union effort to draw closer to nations on its eastern flank and even called for improved ties with the U.S.

But Lukashenko's warm tone toward the West began to change this month after Russia agreed to drop recently hiked tariffs for oil exported to Belarus — a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a year for a country whose main industries include tractors, refrigerators and televisions.

The former collective farm manager declared that "there won't be any more muddle-headed democracy in the country," a sign that he intends to continue on the path of near-total control of the economy, press and politics.

Seven of the nine candidates opposing Lukashenko had been taken into custody, including one who witnesses said was beaten by government forces, then dragged from his hospital bed by men in plainclothes.The president said 639 people were arrested.

Minsk's downtown of wide streets lined with Stalin-era buildings were emptied of protesters and quiet after nightfall .

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the count was "bad or very bad" in half the country's precincts where observers watched it. It also strongly criticized the violent dispersal by riot police of a postelection protest rally.

Lukashenko bristled at the criticism, saying it was beyond the OSCE election observers' mandate.

"What does what happened at night have to do with the election? The election was over," he said at a news conference.

U.S. and European leaders criticized Lukashenko for the wave of violence directed at rival presidential candidates and their supporters.

A White House statement called the police force "disproportionate."

"The actions taken over the last 24 hours, however, are a clear step backwards on issues central to our relationship with Belarus," the statement said."

Despair and anger gripped many inside the country.

"Lawlessness, dictatorship — what else can you call this?" said Natalia Pohodnya, waiting in the snow outside a Minsk jail where her son was being held after participating in a demonstration. "They are beating our kids!"

Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets Sunday night to denounce alleged irregularities. Helmeted riot police bearing shields and swinging truncheons dispersed the protesters from near the main government building after some in the crowd broke windows and doors.

Advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said Monday that 20 journalists — including from major Western media outlets — had been detained and a similar number had become "victims of police violence" during the demonstrations.

"We urge the authorities to publicly condemn the use of violence ... and deplore the official media's one-sided coverage of events," the group said in a website statement.

Lukashenko, 56, has allowed no independent broadcast media, kept 80 percent of industry under Soviet-style state control and suppressed opposition with police raids and pressure. His fiery populism and efforts to maintain a Soviet-era social safety net have kept him popular with the working class and the elderly.

The tainted vote and violent dispersal of opposition protests make any further rapprochement with the West unlikely.

"This election failed to give Belarus the new start it needed. The counting process lacked transparency. The people of Belarus deserved better," said Tony Lloyd, one of the OSCE mission leaders.

The U.S. Embassy said that Washington "strongly condemns all election day violence in Belarus." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that "it's not acceptable to harass, beat or arrest opposition candidates and their supporters who want to exert their right to freedom of expression." Poland's Foreign Ministry also condemned the crackdown.

"At this moment I don't know where my husband is," Neklyayev's wife told reporters. "I couldn't imagine that: They took him right from an emergency care unit as I was watching."

Also arrested was Andrei Sannikov, who was among those beaten outside the government building. Sannikov was the next-highest vote getter after Lukashenko, tallying 2.5 percent, according to official figures.

The human-rights center Vesna said courts on Monday began sentencing many of the arrested to jail terms of 5 to 15 days. Interior Ministry spokesman Anatoly Kuleshov said organizers of mass disturbances could face up to 15 years in prison.

Also according to Vesna, police early Monday raided the office of the website for Charter 97, an opposition organization connected with Sannikov, and arrested its editor.

In previous elections, none of which were judged free and fair by Western observers, Lukashenko tallied 80 percent or more.

In a notable diversion from the OSCE report, the observers' mission of the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States said it did not call the results into question. Despite recent tensions between Minsk and Moscow, Russia continues to see Belarus as a buffer with NATO.

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Jim Heintz contributed to this report.