Belarus opposition asks U.S. and EU to reject elections

The Associated Press, Reuters

MINSK, Belarus: Opposition activists called Monday for the United States and the European Union to reject the results of parliamentary elections that were swept by supporters of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko had promised that the vote in Belarus would meet international standards, and state election officials insisted the election was free and fair, even though not one of the 70 opposition candidates won a seat in Parliament.

"There is no one from the opposition in Parliament," confirmed Nikolai Lazovik, the secretary of the Central Electoral Commission.

"The opposition has gone out of fashion," said the commission chief, Lidiya Yermoshina. She said more than 75 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots in the election Sunday.

Valentina Svyatskaya of the opposition Belarussian Popular Front said, "We can't say that the opposition has lost since, in fact, there was no election."

Lukashenko is a former collective farm boss who has run the small nation since 1994, quashing independent media, squeezing opposition groups and running the country with a Soviet-style command economy. Long a close ally of Russia, Lukashenko had in recent months sought to mend fences with the West, which has imposed harsh sanctions on government figures and key industries.

He has freed several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West and he had promised that the election would be unprecedented in fairness. Opposition candidates were allowed to run - in contrast to the national elections four years ago when they were kept off the ballot.

"A theater featuring a single actor continues to exist in Belarus," said Sergei Kalyakin, a Communist leader allied with opposition groups. "It will be very difficult for the West to step over its principles to recognize the elections."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - whose vote assessments are widely considered authoritative - was expected to release a report on Monday.

"This spits in the face of the European community," said Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail last month, referring to the election results.

"The OSCE is in a pretty sensitive position. They need to produce some positive assessment, but they will find it difficult to do after what has happened."

No election in the former Soviet republic, wedged between Russia and three European Union states, has won Western approval since the mid-1990s.

After the polls closed Sunday, several hundred opposition supporters marched in Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk.

Unusually for Belarus, almost no uniformed police were present at the protest. The demonstration ended peacefully after three hours.

Opposition protests in the past often have been crushed by the police.

Lukashenko's attempt to improve relations with the West is believed to reflect concerns about the country's reliance on Russia, its neighbor, which has cut the subsidized oil and gas exports that have helped keep the Belarussian economy afloat.

Kozulin said the West should not "close the door" on the Belarussian government even though the election was not free.

But after the results were announced, he sounded bitter: "Lukashenko himself closed the door that the West was trying to open for him."

Many Belarussians, particularly the elderly, credit Lukashenko with maintaining stability and preventing a major economic calamity after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Lukashenko for 14 years has shown that he is a people's president," said Grigory Gurevich, 84, "and we won't allow the opposition to interfere."

Opposition leaders said they were unsurprised by the outcome.

"Our position was clear from the very beginning," said Anatoly Lebedko, a veteran opposition figure and head of the United Civic Party. "We do not recognize this campaign as fair or legitimate. They simply appointed 110 deputies."



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