Belarus hopes poll will thaw ties with West

By Stefan Wagstyl in Minsk

Belarus goes to the polls on Sunday in parliamentary elections that could decide whether Aleksander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president, succeeds in recent efforts to ease his deep isolation from the west.

Mr Lukashenko, who wants a rapprochement to counter pressure from Russia, his traditional ally, is certain to manipulate the vote to ensure his state-sponsored supporters win an overwhelming victory.

But he could permit opposition parties to win a few seats in an effort to persuade the European Union and the US to endorse the poll and pave the way for improved relations.

With opposition leaders already denouncing the polls as fraudulent, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who will play a key role in assessing the election, may struggle to reach a positive verdict. Brussels and Washington will then have the delicate job of determining whether, despite the monitors' likely reservations, Mr Lukashenko has done enough to earn an easing of sanctions.

"Current policies [of isolation] have failed," said one EU diplomat in Minsk. "We hope that maybe these steps will create a positive political dynamic, but I have no illusions."

Mr Lukashenko first signalled his willingness to engage with the west this year, after Moscow increased pressure on Minsk by raising gas prices, cutting subsidies and redoubling efforts by Russian companies to buy Belarusan assets.

After Russia's military intervention last month in Georgia, Mr Lukashenko sped up the release of his last political prisoners, a key western demand.

Brussels and Washington say they will now focus on the elections, with EU foreign ministers saying they will "evaluate the situation in Belarus in the light of the parliamentary elections" and review the sanctions imposed on Belarusan leaders, including a visa ban. The US said a "significant improvement" in relations was possible.

Belarus's main liberal opposition groups, the United Civilian party and the Belarusan Popular Front, last weekend put aside misgivings and agreed to participate, though some candidates have withdrawn.

"We know there will be no free and fair election but we need to motivate people to participate," says Yaroslav Romanchuk, UCP vice-chairman. "Even if a few people get into parliament, it will be a base for us."

But these parties will be at a rally in Minsk on polling day to protest against "electoral fraud", claiming vote counts will be rigged.

The OSCE says the central election commission "has not given its assurances that observers will have meaningful access to the vote count". Western diplomats estimate that Mr Lukashenko might allow the opposition to win five to 10 seats from the 70 they are contesting in the 110-seat assembly.

Mr Lukashenko insists he will not grovel for better relations. He told the Financial Times this month: "Whether the west likes it or not, parliament will be elected in accordance with our constitution. I will not go begging for visas to the EU."



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