Flawed victory for 'last dictator' Lukashenko as Belarus elections denounced

Roger Boyes in Moscow

It should have been a triumph for the black arts of spin-doctoring. For months Alexander Lukashenko, often dubbed the last European dictator, has been advised by the veteran British consultant Lord Bell on how to appear to be the very model of a modern democratic statesman.

Today however Western monitors denounced the Belarussian parliamentary elections - in which all the President's men swept to victory - as flawed. "Voting was generally well conducted but the process deteriorated considerably during the vote count," said the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in a statement.

The opposition, denied a single win in the 110-seat House of Representatives, was even sharper in its criticism. "This was an electoral farce staged for the West," said Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the United Civil Party, one of several opposition parties that had fielded candidates.

Denied access to state television and dismissed as money-grabbing opportunists by the 54-year-old President, the opposition parties struggled to make an impact. This evening demonstrators again chanted protests in central Minsk but the police, unlike on other occasions, did not intervene and there seemed to be none of the tension felt during the Ukrainian Orange and Georgian Rose revolutions.

Did Mr Lukashenko - already in power for 14 years - win by fair means or foul? Did he drum up his support using ballot box stuffing techniques he has deployed in the past, or has he, under the tutelage of Lord Bell - a former image advisor to Margaret Thatcher and the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet - made himself more loveable and more respectable?

The questions are critical because the West, the EU and the United States, is becoming more interested in upgrading its relationship with the Minsk regime as part of a general re-shaping of policy towards Russia.

Lord Bell, who has personally met the President in Minsk, does not comment on details of his political counselling. But the effects are plain to see.

The President, a roller-blading former collective farmer with a cleanliness obsession, was always going to be a difficult sell. For this election he appeared to loosen up, letting himself be photographed in the voting booth with his younger son, the offspring of a relationship with his now openly acknowledged mistress.

And step by step he has been making gestures that could be interpreted as the acts of a liberal leader: releasing from prison the former presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin, relaxing rules on foreign investment and sacking hard-liners. All his recent appointments seem designed to create a government of technocrats under Prime Minister Sergei Sidorski and backed by his increasingly powerful son, Viktar Lukashenko.

The point - and the advice of Lord Bell seems to be at work - is to shed the title of Last Dictator and tick off the boxes in a check-list presented by the European Union in a memorandum of understanding. Until then Belarussian officials, including the President, would be banned from entering the European Union - a sanction imposed after the rigged presidential election results of 2006.

The President, it seems, was willing to go some way with Lord Bell but ultimately felt unable to make all the necessary concessions. Some 400 monitors from the OSCE were allowed into the country but found themselves blocked from more than a third of polling stations. They noted several cases of deliberate falsification of results. "This compromised the transparency of this fundamental element of the election process," said the statement.

Opposition activists said that they were not allowed to sit on electoral commissions and that many votes by organised institutions - above all, the army - had been cast even before Sunday. And the most fundamental problem remains Mr Lukashenko's bitter campaign against Western non-governmental groups which have been trying to boost the political skills of the opposition.

"Why do you pay money to these so-called opposition activists?" demanded the President in a pre-election interview with Western media, broadcast in prime time on Belarussian state television.

The idea that opposition may somehow be unpatriotic is firmly anchored in Belarussian culture. Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the Belarussian election commission, emphasised that the elections were fair. One opposition intellectual quoted a character from a Tom Stoppard play last night: "Democracy is in the counting, not the voting."



Partners: Social Network