Belarus meets Western call for access to election count

MINSK: Belarus's top election official has promised hundreds of observers full access to the vote count in a weekend poll President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will lead to normalised relations with the West.

Lukashenko, accused in the West of human rights abuses during 14 years in power, is confident today's parliamentary election will be endorsed as free and fair. No poll in Belarus has been given such an assessment since the mid-1990s.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said last week the election was freer than previous races, but complained it had received no assurances it could see the count.

Opposition leaders also said they had been denied access.

"We stressed again at training sessions ... at polling stations in major cities that that it is vital to allow observers access to all procedures linked to the vote," Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Central Election Commission, told reporters.

"Free access will also be extended to the vote count. The president set us the task of making this election unprecedented in terms of openness and participation by political forces. I hope the outcome will justify those expectations and receive a worthy assessment from international observers."

About 70 opposition candidates are competing for 110 seats in today's contest, far more than previously, and 477 OSCE observers are attending.

The liberal and nationalist opposition, shut out of parliament in 2004, rejected calls by some activists for a boycott. Its leaders say they could win as many as 30 seats.

Even the president says he is willing to have some rivals in the chamber to satisfy Western critics.

Anne-Marie Lizin, a senior OSCE observer, said authorities had created "conditions so that observers can freely watch over the election. European public opinion has placed high hopes in this election and is expecting positive results".

Lukashenko and 40 officials remain barred from the US and EU on grounds that he rigged his 2006 re-election.

Lavish subsidies and benefits have made Lukashenko broadly popular in the country of 10mn. The advocate of a "union state" with Russia, he has sought better ties with the West, especially the EU, after rowing with Moscow over energy prices.

He warned Western leaders this week that if they failed to endorse the poll, all dialogue would cease. But his rhetoric has softened and he has cultivated Minsk's diplomatic corps, who see a well-run election as a step towards normal relations.

The EU has said it could consider easing or lifting the sanctions if the election goes well. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Lukashenko spoke by telephone this week, their first such contact in years.

Cristina Gallach, Solana's spokeswoman, said the poll "represents an opportunity to demonstrate the manner in which the leadership behaves in respect for democratic values".

At least one independent analyst has suggested Western countries will issue an endorsement of the election to some degree with the hope that dialogue can be pursued with Minsk.

Opposition figures have urged caution and called on candidates to collect evidence of irregularities and, if necessary, gather in protest after the vote. - Reuters



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