Belarus' choice of president deserves respect: Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Wednesday the people of Belarus deserve respect for electing strongman Alexander Lukashenko into his fourth term as president.
"I did not follow these elections, but it seems clear from the amount of voters - the choice of the Belarussian people should be respected," Putin told journalists, Interfax reported.
Putin's reaction to the December 19 election was markedly different from that of several European government officials, some of whom called the elections fraudulent and said engaging with Lukashenko was a waste of time after his repressive break-up of a mass protest.
Putin said the "circumstances" of the election have to be looked at separately, though without elaborating. "I am not ready to evaluate the circumstances of these elections," he said.
The Kremlin issued a conspicuously dry statement last weekend saying President Dmitry Medvedev formally congratulated Lukashenko on his victory, but the text of Medvedev's message was not disclosed.
Over 600 people, including five presidential candidates, were arrested after riot police broke up the protest to strong criticism from the United States and several European states.
About 300 were to be freed on Wednesday night after serving their 10 day jail sentences, but hundreds more, including five opposition candidates and their campaign leaders, remain behind bars.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet state for 16 years, secured a fourth term as president for the next five years with nearly 80 percent of the vote, but critics said the elections were not democratic.
© 2010 AFP