Belarus votes amid hopes of new links with West

Belarus has voted in elections which may open up new links with the West. President Alexander Lukashenko has been described in Washington as Europe's last dictator. He is barred from Europe and America, accused of blatantly rigging his 2006 re-election, but hopes this poll will improve his standing. "There should be an opposition, an alternative point of view, and the opposition has a role in society," he said. "But it must be a Belarus opposition, not an opposition fed and funded from outside."

Lukashenko's opponents are wary of his new Western-pleasing style. The opposition leader, Alexander Kozulin, insists it is all superficial, and nothing has really changed. "If the West had taken a strong line with this regime then it would have to have made some steps forward, not declarations, not statements, but concrete actions and real changes," Kozulin said.

Western monitors agree this election has been more open and fair than recent ones, and the EU has indicated it may ease sanctions if the vote goes smoothly. Meanwhile, relations with Russia are increasingly strained. Last year there was a row over energy supplies, then Lukashenko earned Moscow's wrath for his lukewarm support for the war in Georgia.



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