Minister: West should accept Lukashenko

West should review Belarus ties after poll, says Martynov

MINSK, Belarus (Reuters) -- Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov expects the West to brand Sunday's presidential election in his country as unfair.

But he says that instead of accusing President Alexander Lukashenko of running roughshod over human rights, Washington and its allies should accept that Belarus's leader and his policies are popular.

In a defiant interview in which he accused the United States and European Union of interfering in the ex-Soviet state's affairs, Martynov said Belarus did not fear sanctions and would never bow to pressure from the West.

"We would like to believe that our colleagues in the West will truly open their eyes and accept reality," Martynov told Reuters late on Monday.

"Let's hope they will understand the main thing -- that the Belarusian people's choice poses no threat to the interests of any country. We hope they are ready to grasp that Belarus is a reliable and responsible partner on the European continent."

Lukashenko is heavily favored to win a new term on Sunday against three challengers, including two opposition hopefuls.

Western countries allege Lukashenko has rigged elections since the mid-1990s and vow new sanctions if nearly 1,000 observers refuse to recognize the outcome of this contest.

Belarus says better ties with a country strategically located in central Europe would help the European Union develop more effective policies in disarmament, trade, energy supplies, crime prevention and illegal migration.

Martynov shrugged off the likelihood observers will say the poll is not free and fair.

"Declarations before the election suggesting that the polls are supposed to be unfair or rigged simply show judgment has already been passed," Martynov said. "Those working against us are simply waiting for the election in order to say so."

West policies 'ineffective'

He said the West had clung to ineffective policies since 1996, when Lukashenko was first accused of vote-rigging.

"This policy is of no benefit to anyone and it is time to change it. We hope the election will, to some extent, make our partners understand that for five more years they have to work with the leadership of an important European country."

U.S. denunciations, he said, amounted to open interference.

"Brussels has gone even further in declaring support for one of the opposition candidates," Martynov said. "That is clear and unacceptable interference in the political processes of another state. Time will tell just how far-sighted that proves.

"Even now, the two opposition candidates are talking about one or the other pulling out. Brussels may be backing a horse liable not even to finish the race."

Alexander Milinkevich, the candidate supported by most opposition groups, has met EU officials in Brussels and addressed parliament in Poland, Belarus's western neighbor.

'Stability, prosperity'

Although he has drawn crowds to rallies, polls put him far behind the president, who tells voters he has provided stability and relative prosperity alongside neighbors beset by turmoil.

A second opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin, has campaigned less vigorously, but is popular among fellow academics. A fourth runner is an ally of the president.

Martynov said new sanctions would prove counter-productive.

"Sanctions never solve any problems. We believe it is dubious to say the least to use economic sanctions for political ends. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth," he said.

Belarus, he said, would not yield to Western pressure, although ordinary people could be penalized as 40 percent of exports -- mainly fertilizer and oil products -- went to the EU.

"I don't believe such measures would make the EU popular with Belarusians. But we would survive," said Martynov.

"Goods we supply to the EU are such that they can be sold elsewhere. Let Brussels think hard before they start talking about sanctions."