Belarus Leader Says Concedes to Opposition, West

Lukashenko has said before he hoped opposition members make it to parliament to allay criticism.

President Alexander Lukashenko said on Wednesday new rules expanding political rights before September's election are a concession to opposition and Western demands for more democracy in Belarus.

Criticised by the West for his tight grip on the ex-Soviet state, Lukashenko has said before he hoped opposition members make it to parliament to allay criticism, while the European Union has indicated that a fair poll could transform relations with Minsk.

"The forthcoming autumn election will confirm the open and democratic political system of the country," Lukashenko was cited by news agencies as saying at a meeting ahead of Independence Day celebrations on Thursday.

"The key new aspect is the wider rights given to the political parties as demanded by the so-called opposition and the West.

"And, although they (the opposition) are not greatly respected in Belarussian society, we made concessions to their leaders and foreign organisations, by a recent presidential decree, which gives them more rights," he said.

The decree allowed all parties running in the Sept. 28 vote to play a role in the country's Central Election Commission.

Belarus has not run an election deemed to be fair since the mid-1990s. The United States and the EU have banned Lukashenko and some of his officials from entry, accusing him of rigging his landslide re-election in 2006.

But the leader, in power since 1994, says his rule has helped Belarus avoid the economic and political chaos of other former Soviet states and he remains broadly popular in the country of 10 million.

Lukashenko has tried to improve relations with the West, especially after a dispute with Russia over gas. The authorities released several prisoners -- deemed to be political by the West -- early earning cautious praise from the EU.

But U.S. sanctions on a Belarussian state oil product firm prompted Minsk to demand that the U.S. ambassador leave, which she did in March, and make cuts in embassy staff.

And the continued incarceration of academic Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election, remains a key stumbling block in better relations with both the EU and the United States.