Opposition fails to win any seats in Belarus poll

By Jan Cienski in Minsk

Opposition parties failed to win a single seat in Belarus' parliamentary elections, according to results released early on Monday, undercutting the ex-Soviet republic's recent attempt to improve ties with the European Union.

"There are no representatives of the opposition in the results," said Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Belarus central election commission, at a news conference on Monday. Although about 70 opposition party members took part in the poll for the 110 parliamentary seats being contested, she insisted that the campaign was "free and open".

Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarus's authoritarian president who has been dubbed Europe's last dictator, had promised that the elections would be free. Hundreds of international observers and journalists were admitted to watch the vote, and his government recently released several political prisoners.

Ties between Belarus and the EU have been strained ever since Mr Lukashenko rigged the 2006 presidential election, which was followed by the EU imposing visa restrictions on him and other senior officials. Mr Lukashenko has been putting out feelers towards Brussels for several months, but Russia's invasion of Georgia in August lent more urgency to his efforts. Despite Russian prodding, Belarus has not recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that have broken away from Georgia.

However, the result of Sunday's election is going to make it more difficult for the EU to cast aside its doubts about the nature of Mr Lukashenko's regime.

"The west was ready to close its eyes to some of the problems in Belarus if a few opposition members had won seats," said Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the independent Strategy Centre for Political Analysis. "But the result shows that Lukashenko has not fulfilled his side of the bargain with Europe."

The fragmented opposition has denounced the result and an observer mission from the OSCE is scheduled to report on the elections later on Monday. Observers from the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States proclaimed the vote was free and fair. "The opposition didn't have anything constructive to suggest," said Pavel Borovich, a member of the CIS mission.



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