By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006
The White House yesterday denounced the suppression of political protests against election fraud in Belarus and said the United States planned to join European nations in imposing sanctions on Belarusan leaders.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the United States demanded the immediate release of hundreds of protesters who have been arrested for demonstrating against March 19 elections, which President Alexander Lukashenko claims to have won with nearly 83 percent of the vote.
Riot police broke up days of demonstrations in Minsk, the Belarusan capital, early yesterday. About 200 protesters who had been camped in the main square were arrested and carted away in trucks.
The opposition, whose candidate received only 6 percent of the vote, charged that the elections were blatantly fraudulent, an assertion backed by independent election observers and the United States.
Under Lukashenko, 51, a former Soviet collective farm manager who came to power in 1994 as an anti-corruption crusader, Belarus has become one of the world's "outposts of tyranny," a phrase Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has used to describe half a dozen authoritarian countries. But the man Western critics have dubbed "Europe's last dictator" has won the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose foreign minister defended today's police action against the protesters.
McClellan told reporters, "The United States calls on authorities in Belarus to release without delay the hundreds of citizens who have been detained not only in the past 24 hours but in recent days and weeks simply for expressing their political views."
He said, "We strongly condemn the actions by Belarusan security services," who "forcibly seized and detained citizens of Belarus who were peacefully demonstrating against the fraudulent March 19th election results."
Praising the European Union's decision to impose sanctions on Belarusan leaders, McClellan said, "We plan to take parallel steps involving targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions." The U.S. sanctions appeared likely to include travel restrictions against Lukashenko and other top Belarusan officials.
Lukashenko has denied being a dictator but has freely acknowledged his authoritarian tendencies.
"An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it," he said in 2003, according to a BBC profile. "You need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people's lives."
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that the March 19 balloting was not free and fair, citing a "pattern of intimidation" by the state throughout the campaign. However, some Western and Russian polling organizations have found considerable popular support for Lukashenko in Belarus, which has recorded strong economic growth under his presidency and has avoided some pitfalls of the transition to capitalism experienced by other former Soviet republics.