Belarus' leader pledges fair vote; opponents doubt

The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus: Belarusians vote Sunday in parliamentary elections that are being seen as a test of the country's commitment to democracy.

Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko insists his government is playing by international rules, but opponents have said the vote would be far from fair.

Lukashenko has remained in power since 1994 through ballots denounced by Western nations as illegitimate.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions against the president and his government for their treatment of critics and intolerance of dissent.

And neighboring Russia has begun scaling back the preferential energy deals that have helped keep the Belarusian economy afloat. While the two countries maintain close ties, they have clashed recently over energy prices, and Lukashenko's relations with Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have been tense.

Apparently concerned about over-reliance on Russia, Lukashenko has made some recent efforts to appease his critics abroad, including freeing several opposition figures considered political prisoners by Western governments.

He said the elections Sunday will be conducted in strict accordance with international guidelines, and he has welcomed 400 election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"We are conducting the elections by the dictates of the OSCE," Lukashenko said Saturday.

A total of 263 candidates, including 70 from the opposition, are competing for 110 parliamentary seats. Four years ago, the opposition was not allowed to take part in the vote.

But opposition leaders have already called for a protest in the capital after polls close, saying their representatives have been excluded from district electoral commissions - meaning they cannot monitor the vote count.

"The authorities have only lessened the repression a bit, and have not permitted a full-scale campaign," said opposition leader Alexander Kozulin, who was released in August midway through a 5 1/2-year prison term.

Opponents also claim the election is being rigged beforehand, and two opposition members burned the cards certifying them as candidates in a small protest Saturday outside the election commission headquarters.

"The elections have lost all meaning," said Viktor Kontsevenko, registered as a candidate in the Gomel province. He said 40 percent of his district's voters had already cast ballots through an early voting system, and suggested others loyal to the government would likely be brought in on election day.

"The authorities are bringing busloads of servicemen, students and kolholz farmers to the voting," he said.

Belarus was conducting the early voting lawfully, election commission official Nikolai Lazovik said. By Friday, more than 18 percent of voters nationwide had cast ballots.

"We have already done too much for the opposition, but these candidates have been unable or unwilling to take advantage of these chances," Lazovik said.

Some citizens were also skeptical that the election would bring change to the former Soviet republic of 10 million people.

"Lukashenko decides everything anyway," said street-vendor Yanina Kryshtanovich, who was selling tomatoes, plums and potatoes brought from her village to Minsk.

She said she was unaware of the candidates running in her district but planned to vote "for the authorities, who pay my pension."

Many Belarusians, particularly the elderly, credit Lukashenko as a champion of stability who has kept their country at peace and avoided major economic calamity following the Soviet collapse.

Tractor factory worker Arkady Turonku, 44, said he would vote "against the opposition that hinders Lukashenko's work."



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