Belarus votes and hopes for better ties with West


By Andrei Makhovsky

Belarussians were voting for a new parliament on Sunday in an election President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will improve strained relations with the West, particularly the European Union.

Lukashenko has freed political prisoners and eased curbs on the opposition, who have no members in the outgoing 110-member parliament but have been allowed to put forward some 70 candidates in the election.

But the president's opponents are wary and unconvinced.

"Of course the Central Election commission and officials in polling stations are now nicer, they do not seek confrontation," said Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail only last month.

"But this is all superficial, it does not change the basic problems," he told reporters as he voted in a quiet polling station in central Minsk.

The opposition complains it has been denied access to commissions overseeing the count at polling stations. It also sees a system of advance voting, which began on September 23 and is encouraged by the authorities, as an opportunity for vote-rigging.

In typical Soviet-era style, folk music blared from loudspeakers at the polling station and voters were offered an array of food, sweets and drinks.

"We have seen more freedom of speech, more candidates, different parties," said Valentina, 52, a worker in the cultural sector, as she emerged from a polling station in suburban Minsk.

Lavish subsidies and benefits have made Lukashenko broadly popular in the country of 10 million.

Accused in the West of crushing fundamental rights during 14 years in office, he was banned from travelling to the United States and European Union after they accused him of rigging his 2006 re-election.

But after a series of rows over energy prices with ally Russia in the past two years, Lukashenko has started seeking better ties with the West to counterbalance Moscow's influence.

A deep chill in Western relations with Russia after its war with Georgia last month has given him the chance to push that strategy further, and he is confident that hundreds of European monitors will endorse the poll as free and fair.

No election in the former Soviet republic, wedged between Russia and three EU members, has earned such an assessment since the mid-1990s. The verdict of European monitors is likely to matter more than the actual outcome of the ballot.


The voting, which started at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) will last until 8 p.m. (1700 GMT). First unofficial results are expected in the early hours of Monday.

United in denunciation of the polls, Belarus' liberal and nationalist opposition appeared split over how the West should react to Lukashenko's charm offensive.

Kozulin, who is at odds with many other opposition leaders, said the West should offer new incentives for Lukashenko.

"It is impossible to close doors for the Belarussian political regime," he said. "Lukashenko should be talked to."

But fellow opposition leader Vintsuk Vechorko, deputy head of the Belarussian Popular Front, urged the West to exercise caution before endorsing the poll.

"The (European) monitors face a political and ethical dilemma," he said. "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."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent 477 observers for the poll, said last week it was freer than previous races, but complained it had received no assurances it could see the count.

The EU has said it may consider easing or lifting its sanctions if the election goes well.

(Additional reporting and writing by Oleg Shchedrov, editing by Mark Trevelyan)



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