MINSK, Belarus – Belarus police and protesters clashed in the capital and the city of Brest Sunday night after a presidential election in which the country's longtime leader sought a sixth term despite rising discontent with his authoritarian rule and his cavalier dismissal of the pandemic.
Tensions have been rising for weeks ahead of Sunday's vote in the ex-Soviet republic, which pitted President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on Belarus since 1994, against four others. The campaign has generated the country's biggest opposition protests in years. Opposition supporters said they suspected election officials would manipulate the results to give the Lukashenko, 65, a sixth term.
Officials had already denied two prominent opposition challengers places on the ballot, jailing one on charges the candidate called political and prompting the other to flee to Russia with his children. The main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, came under heavy pressure over the weekend as eight staff members were arrested, and one of her top aides fled the country.
Belarusians weary of the country's deteriorating economy and Lukashenko's repression coalesced around Tsikhanouskaya, a former teacher and the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, in large shows of support unusual for a country where crackdowns on dissent are routine.
The head of the Central Elections Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, said Monday that partial results from some regions showed Lukashenko with a crushing lead, getting more than 90% of the vote in some districts.
Police presence in the capital of Minsk was heavy throughout the day and in the evening police set up checkpoints to monitor residence permits, apparently worried that protesters would come from other cities. Lukashenko had vowed to crush any protests.
About 1,000 protesters gathered near the obelisk honoring Minsk as a World War II "hero city," where police harshly clashed with them, beating some with truncheons and later using flash-bang grenades to try to disperse them. Protests also broke out in Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Vitebsk.
Three journalists from the independent Russian TV station Dozhd were detained earlier after interviewing an opposition figure and were expected to be deported.
"What has happened is awful," Tsikhanouskaya told reporters Sunday. She also rejected exit polls that indicated an overwhelming win for Lukashenko, saying "I will believe my own eyes — the majority was for us."