Lukashenko waits for recognition as Belarus goes to the polls

Luke Harding in Moscow

The Guardian,

Belarussians yesterday voted for a new house of representatives, or lower chamber, in an election the country's president Alexander Lukashenko hopes will improve the ex-Soviet state's dismal relations with the west.

"If the election goes smoothly, the west will recognise Belarus," Lukashenko said after voting. Referring to the US secretary of state Condeleeza Rice - who branded him a dictator in 2005 - he added jokingly: "Dictator. Last dictator. Fine, let it be so."

The EU has denounced previous elections in Belarus as illegitimate. In 2006 the US and EU imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 40 of his senior officials, after accusing him of fraudulently arranging his re-election.

Recently, however, the west has shown interest in improving ties with Belarus. This has come as relations with Moscow have nose-dived following last month's war in Georgia and amid a row over Russia's claim to "privileged interest" in former Soviet states.

British officials say they are watching yesterday's poll closely. The EU is now prepared to review current sanctions against Minsk if there are "demonstrable" improvements in the regime's democratic and human rights record, they suggest.

Last night, however, opposition spokesmen in Belarus said the poll had already been rigged. The government had used "administrative resources" to force students and others to take part in early voting and opposition monitors had been banned from polling stations, they said.

"Again there are no democratic elections in Belarus. The house of representatives can't be considered democratic since members will be nominated by Lukashenko's finger," Vintsuk Vechorka, the co-chairman of Belarus' main opposition group, the United Democratic Forces, said.

He told the Guardian: "Lukashenko doesn't want to improve elections. He wants to improve his image in the eyes of the west. He's trying to survive between Putin's KGB Russia and the west. He wants better relations with the west so he can trade with Putin."



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