Belarus tells West: recognize vote, or no talks

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus will cease all dialogue with Western countries if they fail to recognize the ex-Soviet state's parliamentary election, President Alexander Lukashenko said on Saturday.

Lukashenko has staked his hopes on the September 28 vote as a way to improve ties with the United States and European Union, which see it as a test of Belarus's democratic credentials.

No poll in Belarus since the mid-1990s has been judged free and fair in the West. Most opposition hopefuls have been allowed on the ballot this time and hundreds of Western observers are attending.

But opposition officials say they have been denied access to commissions overseeing the count and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the campaign has failed to give voters a clear idea of issues or candidates.

"If even this time the election turns out to be undemocratic, we will cease all discussions with them," Lukashenko, quoted by local news agencies, told reporters at a harvest festival in eastern Belarus.

"Let's just see how they react. We have blatantly broken our own laws to hold an election the way it is understood by the West and the OSCE. This election is unprecedented, run according to the West's rules."

An interim report issued on Friday by the OSCE, Europe's biggest rights and security body, said there was little evidence of full-fledged campaigning. State media, it said, offered few opportunities for debate, with most airtime devoted to praise for the authorities.

No campaign posters enliven the streets of Minsk, only a handful of leaflets have been distributed and few candidate meetings have been held. State television has generally limited coverage to five-minute candidate spots as required by law.


Belarus's disparate liberal and nationalist opposition, frequently beset by internal rows, was shut out of parliament in a 2004 poll. On Sunday, its groups will debate calls for more representatives on polling station commissions and analysts predict a split, with some pulling out of the poll.

Lukashenko has said he would be happy to see opposition candidates in parliament to temper Western criticism, but expressed doubt they could win over enough voters to capture any of the 110 seats.

"How will people vote for them when they are constantly having a go at the authorities?" he said on Saturday. "I will not lead the opposition into parliament by the hand."

Lukashenko, accused of hounding the opposition and muzzling the media during 14 years in power, issued a new appeal to the West this week to recognize the election.

"We do not want to talk to you across the Iron Curtain which you have erected on the borders of Belarus," he said in an interview with the Financial Times and Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The president has sought to improve ties with Washington and the EU after quarrelling with traditional ally Russia over energy prices. Belarussian courts last month released the last detainees deemed "political prisoners" in the West.

Both the EU and the United States have imposed financial sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenko and 40 other officials.

(Writing by Ron Popeski, editing by Mark Trevelyan)



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