Updated at 20:11,29-10-2020

Belarus opposition candidate rejects election result after night of protests

Yan Auseyushkin in Minsk and Andrew Roth in Moscow, The Guardian

Belarus opposition candidate rejects election result after night of protests
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (left) and her ally Maria Kolesnikova hold a press conference the day after Belarus’s presidential election in Minsk. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images
The main opposition candidate in Belarus’s election has rejected the official results that gave President Alexander Lukashenko a landslide victory and her team has vowed to stay in the country to campaign for a change of power.

“I will believe my own eyes – the majority was for us,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya told reporters in the capital, Minsk, on Monday, after widespread reports of vote-tampering in Sunday’s election.

Tikhanovskaya said she considered herself the election winner not Lukashenko, and described the election as massively rigged. Her aides said the opposition wanted a vote recount at polling stations where there were problems. They also said the opposition wanted to hold talks with authorities about how to bring about a peaceful change of power.

The country’s election commission reported on Monday that Lukashenko won 80.23% of the vote while Tikhanovskaya took 9.9%, despite a popular wave of support for the opposition candidate, whose political rallies have drawn some of the country’s largest crowds since the days of the Soviet Union.

Similar, preliminary results released on Sunday prompted unprecedented protests in cities across the country, posing the greatest threat to Lukashenko – often referred to as Europe’s last dictator – since he came to power 26 years ago.

There were bloody clashes as riot police used rubber bullets, flash grenades, teargas and water cannon to suppress demonstrators. Police detained about 3,000 people, Russia’s RIA news agency cited the Belarusian interior ministry as saying. Further protests are expected on Monday night.

Lukashenko’s victory was quickly endorsed by Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, stopped short of congratulating Lukashenko and in a statement called for restraint.

Activists said they had reports dozens of people were injured in the fighting and one person may have been killed after being hit by a police van driving at speed. Belarus’s interior ministry on Monday denied anyone had been killed. The Guardian could not immediately verify the death.

Photographs showed protesters with bloodied faces being tended by field medics. In one photograph, a man who had reportedly been hit in the lung with a rubber bullet lies inert, covered in blood. In another, a riot police officer in a balaclava gestures with an expression of fear and frustration at a protester lying unconscious.

Belarus opposition candidate rejects election result after night of protests

Riot police detain a demonstrator in Minsk on Sunday. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images
“We’re tired of this rudeness, this nastiness,” said a male protester in Minsk who was wearing a dark T-shirt and a mask, and declined to give his name. “We’re tired of these [exit poll] numbers, which are a spit in the face.”

Another man, a plumber, said: “Everyone has come out because we have been cheated. When they gave her [Tikhanovskaya] just 6% [per exit polls], and she had actually won 70%, it was outrageous.”

A reporter for the Guardian saw police use water cannon and rubber bullets against protesters. Video and photographs of the clashes also showed police using Czech-manufactured stun grenades. They were reported to have caused several serious injuries: one man was photographed with part of his foot blown off, and another had reportedly lost a finger due to the devices.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission, called for Belarus to publish accurate results and condemned the violence against opposition supporters. “Harassment and violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe,” she said.

Lukashenko called the protesters “sheep” under foreign control who were “wanting to spoil the holiday”.

“I warned that there wouldn’t be a Maidan, however much some people want that,” Lukashenko said on Monday, referring to a 2014 popular uprising in Ukraine that toppled a pro-Kremlin leader. “People need to settle down, calm down,” he said.

Analysts said it was the deepest crisis Lukashenko had faced in his career. He was already facing unprecedented anger over his handling of the economy and a bungled coronavirus response. Before the elections he jailed opposition candidates and targeted foreign allies, accusing Moscow of sending mercenaries to destabilise the country. Internet connectivity has been significantly disrupted since Sunday.


A man lies on the ground in front of riot police during a protest in Minsk on Sunday. Photograph: Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s certainly the biggest protest I’ve ever seen in Belarus since Lukashenko came to power,” said David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta and an expert on Belarus. “In terms of the elections that Lukashenko’s held, there’s been nothing like it. It seems to me that the whole country really is in favour of change.”

Tikhanovskaya was initially a stand-in candidate for her husband, a popular YouTuber jailed earlier in the year. She has grown into an effective campaigner, attracting more than 63,000 people to a rally last month in Minsk, and thousands more in small cities and towns usually dominated by Lukashenko.

She has been joined onstage by two other female politicians in a “trio” that has transformed the image of the country’s male-dominated politics.