Don`t Back Lukashenko, Opposition Tells West

No election in Belarus has been given a positive assessment by Europe since Lukashenko came to power in the mid-1990s.

Opposition leaders in Belarus urged Europe on Saturday not to give its stamp of approval to this weekend's parliamentary poll which President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will help him out of international isolation.

Lukashenko, accused in the West of human rights abuses during his 14 years in power, has freed political prisoners and given the opposition a greater voice in Sunday's poll in hopes that European observers will endorse it as free and fair.

Senior EU officials have said a positive assessment by European monitors could help lift some of the sanctions imposed on Belarus, including a travel ban on its top officials and restrictions on business deals with Belarussian companies.

"The monitors face a political and ethical dilemma," said Vinchuk Vechorko, deputy head of the opposition Belarus National Front.

"They 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," he told a news conference.

No election in Belarus has been given a positive assessment by Europe since Lukashenko came to power in the mid-1990s. But the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said last week this election campaign was freer than previous ones.

Analysts say several opposition candidates are likely to be elected to the 110-member parliament, which currently has no opposition deputies.

But opposition leaders say little has actually changed, citing concerns including massive advance voting which they say allows the authorities to manipulate the election.

"I have no doubts the polls will be falsified," opposition Communist leader Sergei Kalyakin told the news conference.

Lukashenko, who had a row with traditional ally Russia over energy prices, is keen to forge better ties with the West.

Russia's brief war against Georgia last month gave him an unexpected opportunity, as the West criticised Moscow and sought to improve ties with other ex-Soviet republics.

In a snub to the Kremlin, Lukashenko rejected pressure to recognise Georgia's pro-Russian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"He is trying to blackmail Russia and Europe," said Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of opposition United Civic Party.

"He 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," he added.

Senior OSCE observer Anne-Marie Lizin, who met the head of the Belarussian Central Election commission Lidia Yermoshina on Saturday, promised the assessment of the monitors would be fair.

"Belarus is watched with great interest after what had happened in Georgia," she told Yermoshina. "We hope that we can support what is happening in your country."



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