Belarus leader pledges fair vote; opponents doubt

By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press Writer

MINSK, Belarus - As voters in Belarus chose a new parliament Sunday, opposition leaders insisted the ballot was already rigged against them despite promises by the country's authoritarian president that international voting standards would be followed.

Yet even the fact that a count could be falsified highlighted a change in a country that has been called Europe's last dictatorship - in national elections four years ago, the opposition wasn't even allowed to run.

A total of 263 candidates, including 70 from the opposition, are competing for 110 parliamentary seats. Opposition leaders plan to protest as soon as polls close in the capital because they have been excluded from district electoral commissions and therefore cannot monitor the vote count.

President Alexander Lukashenko said Sunday's election 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.

"It will be very difficult for the observers not to recognize these elections," Lukashenko said after casting his ballot Sunday.

Yet opposition members complained that, in addition to not being able to monitor the vote count, the ballot boxes for those voting early were not kept under guard.

"You can't call it a real election when students, soldiers and workers are forced to vote early and when nobody is guarding the ballot boxes for five nights," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party.

More than 25 percent of the roughly 7 million eligible voters cast ballots ahead of Sunday, Central Elections Commission head Lidia Yermoshina said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Sunday's election comes as Lukashenko, an open admirer of the Soviet Union who has run Belarus with a heavy hand since 1994, has made some efforts to appease critics from abroad, including freeing several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West.

The moves apparently reflect concerns about Belarus' over-reliance on neighboring Russia.

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.

Tensions have increased since last month's war between Russia and Georgia. Belarus has formed a loose union with Russia, but negotiations on creating a fully unified state have been deadlocked for years. Belarus has not followed Russia in recognizing Georgia's two separatist republics as independent nations.

Voting in the capital of Minsk appeared orderly Sunday.

"Belarus has needed to change for a long time, within the country and in relations with the world," said Irina Shulevskaya, a 34-year-old teacher.

But many Belarusians, particularly the elderly, credit Lukashenko as a champion of stability who has avoided major economic calamity following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

"Lukashenko for 14 years has shown that he is a people's president and we won't allow the opposition to interfere," 84-year-old Grigory Gurevich said, proudly displaying his military medals as he voted.

The OSCE observers will give their assessment of whether the election was free and fair on Monday.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Belarus to try to force Lukashenko to stop repressing the opposition. It lifted some sanctions after the release of the political prisoners, but relations remain troubled; the two countries withdrew their ambassadors in March.



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