Official: Election will change Western image of Belarus

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, Sept 12 (Reuters) - Belarus's top election official on Friday said this month's parliamentary poll, featuring dozens of opposition candidates, would do away with Western stereotypes that depict the ex-Soviet state as undemocratic.

The 27-nation European Union, which along with the United States still maintains sanctions against Belarus, is offering closer ties if the election proves to be clean, according to a draft statement obtained by Reuters.

Veteran President Alexander Lukashenko has long been accused by Western countries of cracking down on opponents, muzzling the media, rigging his own re-election and keeping the liberal and nationalist opposition out of parliament.

In the past year, he has sought improved ties with the West as courts freed all detainees deemed to be political prisoners. He says he hopes opposition politicians will win seats in the Sept. 28 contest to prove his country respects democracy.

"This election is intended to smash stereotypes," Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Central Election Commission, told a news conference.

"Let the election prove to the international community that we are for cooperation and openness...Let the campaign be as lively as possible." She said "flexibility" had been used in the election process.

A statement to be issued by EU foreign ministers next Monday welcomes the release of detainees as "a significant step" towards respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law.

The 27 ministers, also keen to reward Minsk for refusing to back Russia in recognising two breakaway regions of Georgia, will call for a pluralist election with fair opposition access to the media and election supervisory boards.


The statement said ministers were ready to review "restrictive measures on Belarussian officials and take concrete, positive measures that could lead to a gradual reengagement with Belarus".

It raised the possibility of a meeting of foreign ministers, increased trade and cultural exchanges and a boost in aid. Washington says it has also eased some economic sanctions.

The opposition, split by internal rows and shut out of parliament in a 2004 poll, has won approval to run about 70 candidates in 110 districts, far more than in past elections.

Opposition figures say they are still being denied access to commissions that oversee the count. Some have suggested they could pull out of the race.

A Sept. 21 meeting of the "council" grouping parties making up the opposition is to take a final decision on participating and many analysts predict a split.

With two weeks to go, there are few signs of campaigning in Minsk's well-maintained streets -- no posters grace walls or billboards and no leaflets are being handed out to voters.

The only evidence of an election race are the publication of party platforms in newspapers and five-minute radio spots by candidates on state radio and television.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been invited to oversee the vote. They have refrained from criticising authorities, but noted the lack of political activity in the run-up to the vote.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, remains barred from the EU and United States over allegations he rigged his re-election. (Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels; Editing by Matthew Jones)



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