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Protests Erupt In Belarus Over The Results Of Presidential Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A video appearing to show an election worker climbing out a window and down a ladder carrying a sack of ballots - well, that is just one reason that thousands of citizens of Belarus have taken to the streets. They're clashing with police and protesting the way yesterday's presidential election was conducted.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUN GRENADES)

KELLY: The sound there of stun grenades. Well, despite widespread support for the main opposition candidate, the autocratic president of Belarus has claimed a landslide victory, his sixth in a row since Belarus became an independent state following the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. Well, NPR's Lucian Kim is following all this turmoil in Belarus from his perch in Moscow. He joins us now.

Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So that autocratic president of Belarus who I referred to - this is, of course, Alexander Lukashenko, who's the only leader Belarus has known for these last 26 years. Who is this popular opponent that he was facing?

KIM: Well, her name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. And she's really quite remarkable because a few months ago, she wasn't even thinking of running. She decided to run after her husband Sergei, who is a popular blogger, was jailed and barred from registering his candidacy. Then she joined forces with the campaign of two other candidates who were prevented from running. And nobody, including Lukashenko, expected her to be so popular. She was met by huge crowds everywhere she went. Today, she held a press conference in the capital, Minsk.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: So what she's saying is her campaign was not recognizing the preliminary results, which give Lukashenko 80% and her only 10%.

KELLY: I mean, which prompts the question of, what evidence does she have that this election was rigged? I mentioned that video, which we should say is not authenticated - it is pretty hilarious. It's something out of "Keystone Kops" (ph) with somebody climbing out a window carrying this stuffed bag of ballots. What other evidence is there that this election was, in fact, rigged?

KIM: Well, what Tikhanovskaya is saying is that her campaign has seen the real results for more than 50 polling stations, and they showed her getting many times Lukashenko's result. She said it's impossible that those polling stations were outliers and that he won in all the other ones. One problem with the election was that independent observers were prevented from visiting polling places. There were also no vote monitors from Western Europe. More than that, when the polls opened Sunday, officials said more than 40% of the vote had already been cast in early voting, which to the opposition screamed of mass fraud. Later in the day, there were long lines in front of polling stations because they'd run out of ballots.

KELLY: So where do things go next for Belarus? Is there any real danger of the longest-ruling dictator in Europe actually losing his grip?

KIM: That's really the key question. Even if Tikhanovskaya represents a significant part of the electorate and people are tired of Lukashenko, he has been really clear that he will react with all the force necessary to prevent a street revolution. Of course, as we know, that can always backfire. But right now, he's warning young people to stay off the streets. In fact, the authorities have already opened criminal cases against dozens of protesters. And the punishment for some of those offenses can carry prison sentences of up to 15 years.

KELLY: All righty (ph). Thank you, Lucian.

KIM: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.