Two Weeks From Poll, Belarusian Police Break Up Demonstration

MINSK (Reuters) -- Police in Belarus have dispersed dozens of demonstrators in the center of the capital, less than two weeks before a parliamentary election which authorities have promised will be free and fair.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, long accused in the West of crushing fundamental rights, has invited hundreds of observers to attend the September 28 election and says it will overturn stereotypes depicting his ex-Soviet state as undemocratic.

He also hopes the opposition, shut out of parliament in a 2004 poll, will now win seats, if only to blunt criticism.

On September 16, about 40 activists from the liberal and nationalist opposition staged what has become a monthly procession to demand explanations for the disappearance of opposition figures in the late 1990s.

Within minutes, riot police pushed the unauthorized gathering's participants out of Minsk's October Square, traditional focal point of political activity. Several demonstrators were involved in scuffles.

"What happened here was sheer savagery," said Vintsuk Vyachorka, one of the leaders of the nationalist Belarusian Popular Front, who had his glasses smashed.

Dozens of candidates from the opposition, repeatedly beset by internal squabbles, have been allowed to register in the 110 districts being contested, far more than in previous votes.

EU Sanctions

The 27-nation European Union, which maintains sanctions against Belarus, including an entry ban on Lukashenka, said this week it would offer closer ties if the election proved clean.

Washington has also recently eased its punitive measures.

Belarus's Foreign Ministry said on September 16 it was optimistic the election would lead to improved ties with Europe.

"We have noted the move by EU states to set down areas in which bilateral action can be improved by interaction between Belarus and the EU," it said in a statement. "This gives rise to cautious optimism."

Lukashenka has long been accused by Western countries of hounding opponents, muzzling the media and routinely rigging votes, including his own reelection in 2006.

In the past year, he has sought improved ties with the West as courts freed all detainees deemed to be political prisoners.

But opposition figures say they are still being denied access to commissions that are to oversee the vote count and some suggested they may pull out of this month's race.

A "council" grouping opposition parties meets on September 21 to decide on participation and many analysts predict a split.

Campaigning remains low-key at best. There are virtually no posters or billboards in Minsk's well-maintained streets and campaign pitches are generally confined to five-minute spots provided by law on state television and radio.



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