By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Belarusian security forces have clashed with protesters in Minsk and other cities after an early exit poll from a tense election gave incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a commanding lead amid concerns of widespread electoral fraud.
Belarusian state TV reported after the August 9 vote that an official exit poll had Lukashenka with 79.7 percent of the vote, well ahead of the 6.8 percent for top challenger Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had drawn huge crowds to rallies across the country.
Tsikhanouskaya told a news conference after the exit poll was released that she did not recognize the results.
“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” Tsikhanouskaya said from her headquarters.
Protests erupted across the capital after polling stations closed, with demonstrators shouting “shame” and others honking car horns.
Riot police fired rubber bullets and water cannon and used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters in several parts of Minsk. There were initial reports of multiple arrests.
Protesters in Minsk began erecting barricades to shield themselves from law enforcement. Protests drawing thousands of people were also reported in other major cities and small towns. Eyewitnesses at two locations said riot police lowered their shields and refused to clash with the protesters.
Throughout election day, police and soldiers were transported into Minsk, where they cordoned off the city and took positions at strategic sites in anticipation of unrest. Public transportation was also limited in Minsk in an apparent attempt by authorities to prevent protests.
Internet freedom monitor NetBlocks reported Internet connectivity had been disrupted across the country since early morning. The disruption affected access to the Internet and social-media platforms — with Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber all experiencing disruptions. Two grassroots election-monitoring websites also were inaccessible.
Earlier in the day, voters formed long lines at polling booths across the Eastern European country and at embassies abroad.
RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported that many people lining up at the polls wore white bracelets signaling support for the opposition. Social-media users also posted pictures of voters wearing white bracelets lining up at Belarusian embassies, including in Moscow, Berlin, and London.
According to an exit poll conducted at 21 Belarusian diplomatic posts, Tsikhanouskaya garnered 81.5 percent of the vote compared to about 6 percent for Lukashenka.
Several voters told RFE/RL that they had never taken part in an election in the country before but had turned out to cast a ballot on August 9 because they want and expect changes.
Tsikhanouskaya — who had told her supporters to wear the bracelets as a symbol of “honesty and purity” — had earlier cast her ballot and demanded election results free of fraud.
“I really want the election to be honest, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if all the people are for [Lukashenka], then we will agree with [the results],” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Tsikhanouskaya, who has teamed up with two prominent women from the campaigns of rejected presidential candidates, has drawn huge rallies with a simple electoral promise to free all political prisoners and rerun a free and fair election.
“It’s a clear sign that people want change. People have woken up. They no longer want to live in fear and humiliation. They want to feel that they are citizens of their country. It’s inspiring. I realize there are people behind me, around me, and ahead of me,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a recent interview with Current Time.
Now that the election is over, there is mounting concern that an embattled Lukashenka will follow through on threats to use force on any postelection dissent.
The election follows a campaign marked by the arrest of more than 1,000 opposition supporters, the barring of several potential challengers, claims of a Russian plot to sow instability, and the rise of an unheralded candidate in the form of the 37-year-old Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenka said after casting his vote in Minsk that neither he nor the government will allow Belarus to slip into “chaos” or “civil war” after the results of the election are announced.
Lukashenka also said that security officials in the country are considering “various options” over the possibility of unrest over the results.
Four challengers were on the ballot, but attention has focused on Tsikhanouskaya, who was a last-minute replacement after husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular vlogger who urged Belarusians to squash the “cockroach” Lukashenka with their slippers, was barred from running following his controversial arrest in late May.
The election comes with Lukashenka’s popularity apparently waning under a slumping economy and the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote also comes as relations between Belarus and traditional ally Russia have worsened since December 2019 when Lukashenka pulled out at the last moment from plans for deeper integration with Russia under their 1999 Union Treaty. Since then, Moscow has limited energy supplies to Minsk, which is dependent on discounted Russian gas and oil to run its inefficient, largely state-dominated economy.
As in the past when relations with Russia soured, Lukashenka has fostered closer ties with both the United States and Europe in recent years. But that rapprochement could be undermined by a crackdown on the opposition and potential massive electoral fraud.
Lukashenka has suggested those opposed to him are “puppets” controlled by foreign masters bent on bringing instability to the country. In an address to parliament on August 4, he played up fears of a “color revolution” backed by Moscow and hostile powers in the West.
“They’ve decided to try out new forms of color revolution against us,” he said, a term that normally refers to earlier uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. “It won’t work.”
Belarus announced on July 29 that 33 members of the Russian private military contractor Vagner had been detained near Minsk and accused them of a vague plot to incite “instability” around the vote. Belarusian officials also linked some opposition leaders, including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, of unspecified links with the mercenaries.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced in July that it would not send observers because they had not received a formal invitation. It is the first time the OSCE is not monitoring a nationwide vote in Belarus since 2001.
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Russian-led grouping of former Soviet republics, had observers at the polls. In the past, CIS observers have largely approved votes in Belarus, unlike Western and international observers who have never deemed any election under Lukashenka as free or fair.
Belarus has more than 48,000 of its own monitors but most are from state-run or state-controlled bodies.
But a few dozen independent observers, including 47 from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, were allowed to monitor polling stations. An opposition initiative called Honest People also fielded vote monitors.
Meanwhile, the Voice platform, which called on voters to send photos of completed ballots for the presidential election, had counted over 1 million registered users who promised to help keep track of the vote. However, with the Internet disrupted it is unclear how the platform functioned.
The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) human rights group reported dozens of cases of police harassment and intimidation at polling stations, as well as the detention of independent election observers during early voting that began on August 4.