Belarus President Wins Re-Election

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The FINANCIAL — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a pro-Russia autocrat, swept to victory on October 11 in an election that raises the prospects of a thaw in the country’s relations with the European Union, according to Nasdaq.

Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss who has ruled this former Soviet republic of some 10 million for more than two decades, won five more years in power with 83.5% of votes, according to preliminary results from the country’s election commission.

The 61-year-old Mr. Lukashenko has faced little opposition in Belarus, a country wedged between Russia and the EU where the state dominates the economy. He depends on Moscow for financial and political support, but has made recent overtures to the EU in an apparent attempt to foster ties. He released political prisoners in August, including the last one of several former presidential candidates jailed after the last election in 2010, and a small protest on October 11 evening passed peacefully.

The EU is preparing to suspend sanctions, including financial penalties and visa bans, this month if the election passes muster, European officials have said. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe planned to present preliminary findings and conclusions on October 12.

Mr. Lukashenko said on October 11 that any rapprochement with the EU didn’t threaten Russia’s position as his country’s main partner.

His support stems from his close ties to Russia and his pledge of economic and political stability, which has gained more importance for many Belarusians amid the conflict in neighboring Ukraine. The Belarusian leader has crushed most opposition, pro-Western or otherwise, frequently using the state security services and bureaucracy to stifle opposition activists, jail them or force them into exile.

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But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the stakes for strong-handed leaders in neighboring countries such as Mr. Lukashenko, who have sought to balance ties between Russia and the West while extracting maximum financial support from Moscow.

Economic troubles in Russia, which props up Belarus’s state-controlled economy with loans and cheap oil and gas, also highlight the risk of Belarus’s reliance on its giant eastern neighbor.

In recent months, Mr. Lukashenko has taken steps to ease ties with the West. He released political prisoners in August, acceding to a key demand of the West and indicating he is looking to lessen Belarus’s heavy reliance on Moscow. After casting his ballot on Sunday, Mr. Lukashenko also reiterated that his country didn’t need a proposed Russian military air base.

“We don’t need any bases,” he told reporters, stressing Belarus’s membership in a Moscow-led security bloc.

Still, Russia will remain Belarus’s main partner, Mr. Lukashenko said. “The point isn’t bases. We’ll stand together with Russian people and anyone else who will defend us in Belarus until death, as it once happened,” he said, referring to World War II. Russia is a “fraternal country and the closest one to us, and you shouldn’t doubt this,” he said.

The Belarusian leader said his relatively neutral stance over the Ukraine conflict shouldn’t be seen as a rebuke to Russia, but an attempt “not to fan the flames” of conflict. “We want a peaceful life,” he added.

The preliminary results showed Mr. Lukashenko won by a greater percentage than in his last re-election race, when he won just under 80% of votes. About 87% of all eligible voters cast ballots, according to the country’s Central Election Committee. Officials tempted voters to polling stations with concerts and cheap food, including meat pies, vegetables and beer.

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Some voters received messages on their cellphones reading: “Voter! Take part in elections! Your vote is important!” Loudspeakers on the subway in the capital, Minsk, reminded people to cast their ballots.

Mr. Lukashenko’s closest challenger was moderate opposition candidate Tatiana Korotkevich with a 4.4% share of the votes, according to the preliminary results. Pro-government Sergei Gaidukevich garnered 3.3% of the votes. The option ” against all” gained more votes than any of Mr. Lukashenko’s rivals.

“I have voted—it’s obvious for whom,” said an 18-year-old student named Katya, indicating a vote for Mr. Lukashenko. She said she had received a pen and a note pad at the polling station, “just like it was my birthday.”

The first-time voter compared the candidates’ manifestos but decided the country wasn’t ready for big changes, she said.

A 24-year-old recent university graduate in Minsk who gave her name only as Nastya said she wouldn’t vote.

“I don’t trust people with such an important job as choosing the head of state,” she said. “It’s like asking a child to drive a car or a person of the street to perform surgery. We don’t have enough information to choose a leader.”

After polls closed at the last election in 2010, thousands hit the streets and were met by riot police and men from the government’s security service, still known as the KGB, who violently dispersed the protest and arrested most of Mr. Lukashenko’s rivals.

This time, around 200 rallied after the vote, but soon dispersed. One protester was detained briefly, and later released without charge.

 

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