Belarus begins poll and seeks better ties with West

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussians voted in a parliamentary election on Sunday that President Alexander Lukashenko believes could improve relations between his former Soviet republic and the West.

Lukashenko, accused by the West of human rights abuses during 14 years in power, is confident European monitors will endorse the polls as free and fair. No election in Belarus has been given such an assessment since the mid-1990s.

Candidates from 70 opposition parties are fighting for seats in the 110-member parliament. But although analysts predict the parties could win several seats, opposition leaders have already denounced the vote as fraudulent.

The verdict of European monitors, hundreds of whom have arrived in Belarus, is likely to matter more than the actual outcome of the 12-hour voting which began at 8 a.m. (6 a.m. British time).

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

Lavish subsidies and benefits have made Lukashenko broadly popular in the country of 10 million. He has sought better ties with the West, especially the European Union, since rowing with Moscow over energy prices.

(Writing by Oleg Shchedrov)



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