New clashes between police and protesters broke out in Belarus on Monday after the opposition accused President Alexander Lukashenko of rigging his re-election victory to a chorus of criticism from Western leaders.
A Reuters witness saw police dragging protesters out of a crowd and beating them with truncheons in Minsk, and dozens of people detained. Police also blocked off roads in the capital.
Official results handed Lukashenko, in power for more than a quarter of a century, an 80 per cent share of the vote in Sunday’s election, while Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, who emerged from obscurity to become his main rival, took just 9.9 per cent.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995, and the run-up to the vote saw authorities jail Lukashenko’s rivals and open criminal investigations into others who voiced opposition.
Tsikhanouskaya, who entered the race after her blogger husband, who intended to run, was jailed, told reporters in Minsk that she considered herself the election winner. She said the election had been massively rigged.
WATCH | Protesters clash with police in Belarus after presidential election:
“The authorities are not listening to us. The authorities need to think about peaceful ways to hand over power,” said Tikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who entered the race after her blogger husband was jailed.
“Of course we do not recognize the results.”
Her aides said the opposition wanted a vote recount at polling stations where there were problems.
There was no immediate response to that offer from Lukashenko.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, but is facing his biggest challenge in years to keep his grip on power amid disenchantment in some quarters over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.
Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies drew some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Events are being closely watched by Russia, whose oil exports run through Belarus to the West and which has long regarded the country as a buffer zone against NATO, and by the West, which has tried to lure Minsk from Moscow’s orbit.
Germany called for the European Union to discuss sanctions on Belarus that were lifted in 2016 to foster better relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin used a congratulatory telegram to nudge Lukashenko to accept deeper ties between the two nations, which the Belarusian leader has previously rejected as an assault on his country’s independence.
Riot police used force and detained around 3,000 people at Sunday’s post-election protests.
Canada concerned by police crackdown
Lukashenko’s attempts to crack down on protests could hurt his wider effort to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.
Neighbouring Poland said its Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had called for a special European Union summit on Belarus. The Polish Foreign Ministry condemned the violence and appealed to the Belarusian authorities “to start respecting fundamental human rights.”
WATCH | The unprecedented political challenge facing the president of Belarus:
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement Monday that Canada is “deeply concerned” by the police crackdown and wants the government to show restraint.
Champagne said actions by the authorities had “further eroded the democratic legitimacy of the vote” and called for the results of Sunday’s election “to reflect the will of the people.”
Canada is deeply concerned by violence following Belarus presidential elections.<br><br>We call on the government of Belarus to exercise restraint and uphold respect for human rights.<br><br>We will continue monitoring the situation closely.<br><br>My statement: <a href=”https://t.co/nQR5tuJiCq”>pic.twitter.com/nQR5tuJiCq</a>
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the EU must discuss sanctions against Belarus.
The EU had lifted sanctions because the country had taken steps in the right direction, including releasing political prisoners, Maas said in Berlin.
“We must now discuss in the EU whether this still applies in the light of the past week and the past days,” he added, echoing comments from Poland.
Maas’s ministry earlier said there were numerous indications of fraud in the election.
Rights groups say more than 1,300 people were also detained in the crackdown ahead of the election, including independent election observers and members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team.
After casting his vote on Sunday, Lukashenko denied imposing repressive measures as “fake news or far-fetched accusations.”