International observers call Belarus vote flawed

MINSK, Belarus (AP) _ Belarus' parliamentary elections fell short of democratic standards, the United States and international observers said Monday, despite President Alexander Lukashenko's promise to play by international rules

The autocratic Lukashenko, under pressure from rising energy prices charged by longtime ally Russia, had cast Sunday's elections as a big step toward democracy. For the first time, he allowed opposition candidates to run, and welcomed hundreds of foreign observers in an effort to improve ties with the West.

Belarusian election officials insisted the election was free and fair, even though none of the 70 opposition candidates won places in the 110-seat parliament.

"The opposition has gone out of fashion," Central Election Commission chief Lidiya Yermoshina said.

Denied a voice in governing the former Soviet republic of 10 million once again, the opposition dismissed the vote as a farce and urged the U.S. and European Union to reject its results _ as they have with previous votes that have kept Lukashenko in power since 1994.

The observers' assessment indicated he has far to go to appease the United States and the European Union. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was conducted in a "strictly controlled environment with a barely visible campaign" and raised serious questions about the vote count.

"Promises to ensure the transparency of the vote count were not implemented," the OSCE monitoring mission said in a statement. "The count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of polling stations visited."

Echoing the OSCE mission, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the election was well short of international standards. Relations between the two nations are tense _ both removed their ambassadors from each others' capitals in the spring.

Rights activists worried the election could lead to a new crackdown on government opponents.

"I'm afraid that the holiday of democracy is over and Lukashenko will renew repression against the opposition with new force," said Oleg Gusak, leader of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has quashed independent media, squeezed opposition groups and run Belarus with a Soviet-style command economy. Long a close ally of Russia, Lukashenko had recently sought to mend fences with the West, which has slapped sanctions on government figures and key industries.

He has freed several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West and had promised the vote would be unprecedented in fairness. But he also warned of further troubled ties if the West refuses to recognize the elections.

"Lukashenko has shown that he ... wants to play only by his own rules," said Alexander Milinkevich, an influential opposition leader.

The EU's reaction was cautious Monday. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner noted that the OSCE statement included "some positive indications but also a number of negative elements."

The EU must reflect on "how best we can engage with Belarus, its government and people," she said. "This engagement should include ways of strengthening respect for democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights."

Lukashenko's opponents had called the election rigged, saying authorities took no efforts to safeguard the widespread practice of early voting. They also were kept off district electoral commissions that count ballots. "This was not an election but a farce," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Front.

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



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