Belarus poll a vote for Russia or Europe

MINSK: Belarussians voted yesterday in parliamentary elections that could determine whether President Alexander Lukashenko's regime warms to the West or moves deeper into Russia's orbit.

Voting opened in the former Soviet republic yesterday afternoon, giving the nation of 10million people wedged between old ally Russia and the European Union 12 hours to cast ballots.

At polling station number 446, a large brick building close to the centre of the capital Minsk, an elderly couple showed up to vote well in advance.

"We are accustomed to the Soviet regime, we are disciplined," 82-year-old Nikolai Zelenkevitch said as an opposition observer squabbled with an official about the right to view an electoral list.

Critics fear the poll will be blighted by massive fraud, especially by around a third of the electorate that took advantage of a law allowing them to vote in advance this week, without independent monitoring.

Mr Lukashenko was once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, but has been courting the West in the past few months amid signs of wavering loyalty to Russia.

The autocrat has ruled Belarus for the past 14 years, but has voiced hopes the vote will be recognised by the European Union and the US, which are closely monitoring Belarus's democratic credentials.

The Belarussian Opposition has already slammed the poll as undemocratic and plans a rally as soon as polling ends to protest at what it fears will be widespread voting fraud by allies of the 54-year-old president.

Western election observers say Belarussian authorities have made "real efforts" to increase fairness, citing the greater time allotted them on television. But the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Mr Lukashenko's critics were being ignored in state-controlled media, adding there had been "no improvement" from previous elections.




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