Opposition protests Belarus vote as West watches

MINSK (AFP) - Hundreds protested in Belarus on Sunday after parliamentary elections that could determine whether President Alexander Lukashenko's regime warms to the West or moves deeper into Russia's orbit.

Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has courted the West in the lead-up to the polls in an apparent bid to thaw relations with the United States and European Union.

Washington and Brussels have offered better ties with the ex-Soviet republic if they approve of the election, which was slammed as a farce by opposition activists in a rally as polling ended at 8:00 pm (1700 GMT).

Protesters held banners declaring "No to Farce," "Dictatorship Should Go to the Dustbin of History," "No to Russian Military Bases" and "Lukashenko is Europe's Last Dictator."

They also waved flags of the European Union, the red-white-red former flag of Belarus eliminated by Lukashenko in 1996, and orange ones mirroring those used in the pro-Western Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.

Earlier, a coalition of anti-Lukashenko groups slammed the election as undemocratic.

"It is clear these elections cannot be recognised as honest and fair under any criteria. We do not recognise the results," Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Citizen Party, told AFP.

After casting his ballot, Lukashenko warned darkly of opposition groups "financed from outside."

"A real, constructive opposition is always needed... but not an opposition fed and financed 100 percent from outside," he told journalists.

Lukashenko, the iron-fisted ruler of the economically-backward former Soviet state for the past 14 years, has clamped down hard on protests in the past.

On Sunday, however, only a few uniformed police could be seen surrounding the rally, in stark contrast to previous post-election protests in Belarus, which lies wedged between Russia and the 27-nation European Union.

The West has offered to ease sanctions, give economic aid and lift a travel ban on Belarussian leaders if Sunday's poll shows signs of progress in a country which is also a key transit route for Russian gas exports.

At a polling station in Minsk, 82-year-old Nikolai Zelenkevich offered support for Lukashenko. "We are accustomed to the Soviet regime, we are disciplined," Zelenkevich told AFP.

But another voter, 27-year-old Nikolai Lugovtsov, said "normal people cannot vote for a candidate who was placed there by Lukashenko," adding: "This is our country, the last dictatorship of Europe."

At 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) the Central Elections Commission in Minsk said around two-thirds of the electorate had voted.

That included 26 percent who cast their ballots in early voting from Tuesday through Saturday.

The opposition has criticised early voting as giving authorities an easy way to commit fraud, since it was not subject to independent monitoring.

On Friday, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Lukashenko's critics were being ignored in state-controlled media, adding there had been "no improvement" from previous polls.

That is one of the complaints of the opposition, which organised the rally in Minsk's October Square attended by several hundred activists.

Thousands had camped out in the square to protest the results of a March 2006 presidential vote widely seen as rigged.

Of the 263 candidates fighting for the 110 seats in the lower house of parliament, only 70 are from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest are Lukashenko loyalists.

In the country's last parliamentary elections in 2004, no opposition candidates won a place in the lower house.

The vote was monitored by almost 400 observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's elections watchdog. The first results are expected on Monday.



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