Belarus president laughs off dictator image

President Alexander Lukashenko joked about his reputation as "Europe's last dictator" as he cast a ballot in elections which he claims will steer Belarus towards democracy.

By Colin Freeman in Minsk

Mr Lukashenko, 54, who was ostracised by the West two years ago for rigging his own presidential election and stamping out the protests that followed, made light of the label given to him by Washington as he voted in the capital, Minsk.

"Dictator? Last dictator? Fine, let it be so," he told foreign journalists.

"You wouldn't have seen the last dictator had you not come here."

The parliamentary polls were part of a charm offensive by the Belarussian leader aimed at improving relations with Europe and America, which slapped sanctions on both him and senior officials in his regime over his jailing of political opponents in 2006.

The former chicken farm boss is anxious to seek new friends after a fall out with neighbouring Russia over its recent invasion of Georgia, and over Moscow's decision to end its Soviet-era tradition of giving Belarus subsided gas supplies.

Nearly 500 observers from the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have been invited in, and opposition candidates - who currently have no seats in the 110-member parliament - have been allowed to campaign with less police harrassment than before. The government has even allowed polling stations to set up bars selling cheap beer in an attempt to improve voter turn out.

Opposition candidates, however, claim the real reason for the lack of interest in the contest is because of strict limits on airtime and campaign budgets, which have left the former Soviet state's seven million voters with little awareness of what alternatives they might offer to Mr Lukashenko.

"It makes no difference to me who is voted in as long as they serve the people," said Nina Zinovich, 50, who is unemployed, as she voted at a peeling Communist-era technical college in Minsk. "Mr Lukashenko is doing a good job, and I am not sure who could do it better."

The vote appeared to be proceeding smoothly, with foreign monitors posted around the country reporting no "major" problems such as ballot box stuffing. They said the real test, however, would lie in whether they were allowed unfettered access to the evening vote count, which is where opposition candidates claim is where fraud would be most likely to take place.

"It seems superficially good so far, but it will depend on whether the government honours its promises on access to the count," said one Western election monitor.

However, Kor Runkevich, a candidate for the United Pro-Democracy Forces of Belarus, the main opposition coalition, complained that observers at 11 polling stations had been only allowed access for a single hour or less. "We have no idea what was happening during the rest of the time," he said.

The coalition also claimed that a photographer had been harassed after taking successive pictures of a seal on a ballot box, which proved that it had been tampered with at some point.

There was some signs, however, of the opposition trying to have its cake and eat it. At a news conference, Victor Yanchurevich, another coalition candidate, declared he "would not recognise" the vote because he thought it would be rigged, only to then confirm that he would take up a seat if the vote went his way.

The OSCE is due to give its verdict on the fairness of the elections on Monday. If the polls are given a clean bill of health, it could pave the way for the sanctions against Mr Lukashenko to be lifted and for increased investment from the West. Belarus's recent fall out with Russia means that Mr Lukashenko is wary of allowing the country's industry to fall too much into the hands of Russian investors.



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