A 'dictator' flirts with the West


MINSK, Belarus: Belarus, once described by Washington as Europe's last dictatorship, voted Sunday in a parliamentary election that President Aleksandr Lukashenko said would lead to better relations with the West.

"If the election goes smoothly, the West will recognize Belarus," Lukashenko said, beaming, after casting his vote.

"Dictator? Last dictator? Fine, let it be so," he said, referring to the label applied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005. "You wouldn't have seen the last dictator had you not come here," he said in a jokey exchange with reporters.

Lukashenko, accused of flouting fundamental rights during 14 years in power, has recently freed political prisoners and eased curbs on the opposition, which was shut out of the outgoing 110-member Parliament.

His opponents this time have been allowed to put forward about 70 candidates and they hope to win up to 30 seats. But they do not trust that Lukashenko's reforms are for real.

"Of course the central election commission and officials in polling stations are now nicer; they do not seek confrontation," said Aleksandr Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail last month, told reporters after voting.

"But this is all superficial, it does not change the basic problems," Kozulin said.

The leader of opposition Communist Party, Sergei Kalyakin, said his election monitors had failed to record any major wrongdoings during the vote.

But he said that advance voting, which began Sept. 23 and was encouraged and tightly controlled by the authorities, gave the government an opportunity to cheat.

The authorities have rejected such accusations. Officials put the advance turnout at 26 percent.

Lukashenko remains banned from traveling to the United States and the European Union, which accused him of blatantly rigging his 2006 re-election. The EU has said it may consider easing or lifting its sanctions if the election goes well.

The first, unofficial results are expected early Monday.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, has sent 477 observers.

The state-run press agency Belta quoted a senior OSCE observer, Anne-Marie Lizin, as saying, "What we have so far seen monitoring the election is in full accordance with rules and procedures."

"We have a favorable impression," she was quoted as saying.

No election in Belarus, which is wedged between Russia and three EU member states, has won a Western endorsement since the mid-1990s.

Lukashenko says he wants the opposition to win some seats, if only to counter Western critics.

Lukashenko set about trying to improve relations with the West more than a year ago amid rows over energy prices with ally Russia. The chill in relations between Moscow and the West after the Kremlin's war with Georgia last month has given him the chance to press home that strategy.

The liberal and nationalist opposition appeared split over how the West should react to Lukashenko's charm offensive.

Kozulin, the opposition politician, said the West should offer new incentives.

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

But Vintsuk Vechorko of the nationalist Belarussian Popular Front urged caution.

Monitors, he said, had two options: They could accede to a "project of remaking Lukashenko into a European, nationally minded politician" or they could "remain committed to their principles of calling a fraudulent election a fraudulent election."



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