Flowers, feasts in Soviet-style polls

By Ursula Hyzy

CARNATIONS and well-stocked buffets greeted Belarussians voting in a Soviet-style election yesterday, as observers from the opposition battled what they feared would be massive voting fraud.

Echoing Soviet elections, when voters had no choice but the Communist party, polling stations offered gifts and a festive atmosphere.

But that did little to soothe the opposition, which expects vote-rigging by allies of autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for the past 14 years.

At polling station 446 near the historic centre of Minsk, just before voting began at 8am (0500 GMT), the head of the precinct commission gave tips to 12 subordinates seated at a long table covered by a pristine white tablecloth.

"Check identity documents carefully ... and also pay attention to young people who are 18-years-old.

"We will give them a little gift so they remember this day," the commission chairman said.

The friendly atmosphere was disturbed by the arrival of an observer from the opposition, an elderly woman holding a mobile phone and a notebook.

"You're trying to tell me that 1,500 voters are registered here, but I want to see the electoral lists," she said.

A brief dispute broke out as officials, citing election rules, refused to give her the list.

"You have the right to observe," one said, showing her to a seat where she was permitted to watch as other voters cast ballots.

Among the first voters to arrive were a pair of octogenarians, including Nikolai Zelenkevich, 82, a retired teacher of economics and technology.

"We are accustomed to the Soviet regime, we are disciplined," he told AFP.

Another elderly woman, 87-year-old retired surgeon Tamara Golovanova, lavished praise on the country's president, saying that he had been "sent by God to the Belarussian people, who have suffered so much".

Others were less supportive of Lukashenko, whom critics accuse of gagging the media and harassing opponents as he has ruled his economically backward nation of 10mn people, a close ally of Russia.

Natalya, a 35-year-old psychologist, criticised the authorities for "showing people that everything is going well" and said she had voted for an anti-Lukashenko candidate.

"I voted for the man not because he is in the opposition, but because he corresponds better to my world view," she said.

Nikolai Lugovtsov, a 27-year-old sports journalist, was more blunt.

"Normal people cannot vote for a candidate who was placed there by Lukashenko," he said.

Echoing a phrase used by US officials to describe Belarus, he added: "This is our country, the last dictatorship of Europe." - AFP



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