'Last dictator' calls an election in Belarus in a bid to come in from the cold

Tony Halpin in Moscow

Belarus goes to the polls tomorrow in a parliamentary election that its dictatorial leader hopes will improve relations between the country and the West.

Supporters of Alexander Lukashenko, the President, held all 110 seats in the last parliament. But 70 opposition candidates have been allowed to stand this time and as many as 30 are expected to win seats.

Mr Lukashenko has called on the European Union and the United States to give a positive assessment of the elections and to embrace Belarus. The man who was dubbed the last dictator in Europe recently hired Lord Bell, the British public relations guru, to improve his image.

Almost 500 observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are attending the election as Mr Lukashenko strives to win international approval of the ballot as free and fair.

No election in Belarus has won such recognition during his 14 years in power.

"We want you to accept us, to endorse and recognise our election. We do not want to talk to you across the iron curtain which you have erected on the borders of Belarus," Mr Lukashenko told reporters during the campaign.

The US and the EU imposed sanctions and banned Mr Lukashenko from entry, along with 40 government officials, after he rigged his re-election as President in 2006. Opposition activists were also jailed.

He remains popular with many Belarussians, however, who credit him with maintaining stability and insulating the country from the economic chaos that afflicted other parts of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Mr Lukashenko is eager to improve relations with the West after a fallout with Russia, which imposed a sharp increase in gas prices on Belarus last year. Although Belarus and Russia are supposedly creating a "union state", Mr Lukashenko is also fearful that the Kremlin could try to engineer a takeover of his country in its strident new mood after the war with Georgia last month.

Courts in Belarus have released the last men who are regarded by the West as political prisoners, while Mr Lukashenko has sought to clean up his image. He has threatened to end all dialogue with Western leaders if they refuse to judge the poll free and fair.

The EU indicated this month that it was ready to improve relations after the release of the political prisoners. Alexander Milinkevich, who stood against Mr Lukashenko for the presidency, said however that the authorities were making only "cosmetic changes" to win legitimacy, adding: "I don't believe the elections are open or democratic."

Opposition candidates decided not to boycott the election, although they have given warning of ballot-rigging after being barred from witnessing the vote count. The OSCE has also said that it has not received any guarantee that its monitors will be able to observe the count.



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