Belarus set for parliament vote

Belarus is set to hold parliamentary elections, which will see "Europe's last dictatorship", as Washington calls the country, move towards the West or deeper into Russia's sphere of influence.

The European Union has promised to lift travel restrictions on Belarussian leaders and offered economic aid to the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people, if Sunday's vote shows progress towards "democratic values".

Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian president, who has ruled his country for 14 years, told reporters last week: "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."

Opposition fears

About 70 opposition candidates are on the ballot - a record number - and 477 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are monitoring the poll.

But opposition leaders urged the observers on Saturday not to give their stamp of approval to the poll.

Vinchuk Vechorko, deputy head of the opposition Belarus National Front, said: "[Voters] can carry out a political project of remaking Lukashenko into a European nationally-minded politician ... or remain committed to their principles of calling a fraudulent election a fraudulent election."

Sergei Kalyakin, leader of Belarus' Communist party, said: "I have no doubts the polls will be falsified."

Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civic Party, said Lukashenko "will tell Russia: give me good gas prices or I will walk away to Europe, and he will tell Europe: deal with me or ... you will see the Russian bear at your doorsteps".

Lukashenko warning

Lukashenko promised the vote will be "democratic without precedent" and threatened to cut ties with the West if its observers say the election was rigged, as they did with previous Belarussian polls.

"If the West does not recognise the results of parliamentary elections ... Belarussian authorities will break off all talks with them," Lukashenko said last weekend.

In August, Belarus released three people viewed by the West as political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin. The opposition has also been given more access to television.

But dissidents have dismissed the moves as cosmetic in a country where the opposition is subject to arbitrary arrests and other forms of intimidation.

Minsk 'silence'

Belarus has been a traditional ally of Russia, which heavily subsidises Belarus' Soviet-style economy, but has been seeking a higher price for its support.

Following Russia's conflict with Georgia last month, which led to a deep chill in Moscow's relations with the West, the Russian ambassador to Minsk criticised Belarus for maintaining a "modest silence" on the conflict.

Minsk has declined to follow Moscow's lead in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway regions at the heart of the conflict.

Andrew Wilson, a Belarus expert at the London-based European Council of Foreign Relations, said the Georgia war shook up the Moscow-Minsk alliance by showing how vulnerable the ex-Soviet republics were to "big brother" Russia.

"Clearly [Lukashenko] was worried that Russia would use a kind of sphere-of-influence power in Belarus as well as in Georgia, particularly economically."

Alexander Milikevich, a former opposition presidential candidate and leading opponent of Lukashenko, said Russia "wants maximum influence on the domestic and foreign policy of the former Soviet republics, of Ukraine, Georgia [and] Belarus.

"It would like to preserve them as satellites," he said.

Kozulin, the recently freed prisoner and former presidential candidate, said Lukashenko had "no strategy for improving relations with the West" and was merely playing both sides "to get the maximum benefit".

Alexander Byalyatsky, head of the Vyesna human rights centre, said: "After the election, there will be a strong wave of repression."



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