Belarusian voters re-elected President Alexander Lukashenko for a third term on March 16, handing him 82.6 percent of the vote in very heavy turnout, according to election officials.

Although many election monitors, including those from the Commonwealth of Independent States, said the balloting was fair and transparent, representatives of the European Union and the United States declared the vote to be fraudulent.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told the press March 20 that the Bush administration would not accept the results, and called for new elections. He also said the U.S., along with several Western Europe nations, was considering imposing new economic sanctions against the country.

Lukashenko’s opponents staged noisy demonstrations against the election results in Minsk, the nation’s capital, although organizers expressed disappointment at the relatively small turnout.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the elections “flawed,” but said they had a “positive side” in that opposition candidates were given time to speak on public media.

Zhao Sidi of the Chinese foreign ministry said the elections were fair and that foreign observers were admitted freely to polling places. Observers with the German-based Society of Civil Rights and Human Dignity Protection said the elections complied with the UN Human Rights Convention.

Even those who found the election flawed, however, generally agree that, based on polls, Lukashenko would have won the election anyway. The Los Angeles Times, for example, acknowledged last year that even Lukashenko’s “fiercest opponents don’t question the accuracy of independent polls that rate him the most popular politician in this country.”

Lukashenko’s popularity in part stems from his resistance to those who would privatize publicly owned enterprises and cut social programs.

Attempts at interference by Europe and the U.S. were obvious. The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, boasted that his campaign had volunteers from 17 countries — something that would certainly provoke condemnation if it were to happen in the U.S.

Sergei Baburin, a representative of the Belarus-Russia Union State Parliament, told the Belta state news agency that “baseless” statements by U.S. and European leaders were “intended to predetermine the negative attitude of the international community to the election.”

In the run-up to the vote, the country’s security agency said it had uncovered several election-related plots, including an attempted coup d’etat and plans for falsified exit-poll tallies.

Shortly before the election, working with their Russian counterparts, Belarusian security agents caught an opposition campaign activist transporting 65,000 counterfeit copies of the nation’s main news daily, Soviet Belarus, into the country. The counterfeits were of high quality, almost exact replicas, except that they had articles containing negative disinformation about the president.

It has been an open secret for some time that the West would have liked to see a replay of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” which swept its Russian-allied leadership from power. The charges of fraud and the events leading up to the elections have been seen as attempts by foreign powers to install a pro-Western leadership, and break the alliance between Belarus and Russia.

Lukashenko told Belta that Belarus was a target because it stood in the way of U.S. desire for a unipolar world: “Enemies of the multipolar world want to isolate Russia from Europe.” He also spoke out against the U.S. “war on terror,” calling Bush “the world’s number one terrorist.”

Also, many say, the West wants to destabilize Belarus because it is the only former Soviet republic to have maintained socialist property relations. Belarus today considers its system “market socialism.” Nearly 80 percent of all industry is publicly held, and Lukashenko has resisted calls for privatization.

The Belarusian security services were worried about possible provocations by the opposition should its candidates lose and urged opposition leaders to refrain from holding illegal demonstrations. Disobeying the law, the leaders held the demonstrations, but the police allowed them to go on.

At press time, no incidents were reported, but authorities said they were still alert for possible incidents.