MINSK — Belarusian security forces took up positions across the capital Minsk as an early exit poll from a tense election put incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with a commanding lead amid widespread concern about vote-rigging and a crackdown on the opposition.
Voters formed long lines at polling booths across the Eastern European country and at embassies abroad on August 9 as Lukashenka faced what analysts say is the biggest challenge yet to his 26 years in power.
Belarusian state TV reported that an official exit poll had Lukashenka with 79.7 percent of the vote, well out in front of the 6.8 percent for top challenger Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had drawn huge crowds to rallies across the country.
The announcement comes amid reports on social media and elsewhere of police and soldiers being transported into Minsk, cordoning off the city, and taking up positions at strategic sites in anticipation of unrest.
According to a correspondent from Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, water cannons and equipment to erect barbed-wire fencing were also being brought in.
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.
Roman Vasyukovich, a correspondent providing reports for Current Time TV’s live election day program from Minsk, says Internet blockages also were making it difficult for independent media to report about voting irregularities they have documented.
Despite the repressive environment, RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported there were long lines of voters outside of polling stations throughout the day, with many people wearing 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.
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 post-election 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 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 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, have been allowed to monitor polling stations. An opposition initiative called Honest People is also fielding vote monitors.
Meanwhile, the Voice platform, which calls on voters to send photos of completed ballots for the presidential election, has counted over a million registered users who have promised to help keep track of the vote. However, with the internet disrupted it is unclear how the platform will function.
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.
With reporting by Current Time, RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, Tony Wesolowsky, Reuters, and AFP
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