Belarus president's allies win

By Jan Cienski in Minsk and Stefan Wagstyl in London

Supporters of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus, won every seat in Sunday's parliamentary election in a controversial poll that will complicate the ex-Soviet republic's recent attempts to improve relations with the European Union and the US.

The results, announced on Monday, left Brussels and Washington struggling to find ways of maintaining dialogue with Minsk while avoiding blessing elections condemned as fraudulent by opposition leaders.

The elections were criticised as falling short of democratic standards by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the continent's main elections watchdog.

"Despite some minor improvements, the September 28 parliamentary election in Belarus ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections ... The election took place in a strictly controlled environment with a barely visible campaign," said the OSCE.

Lidia Yermoshina, head of the Belarus central election commission, confirmed that the 70 opposition party candidates failed to win any of the 110 seats and insisted the election had been "free and open". Observers from the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States agreed.

But the OSCE, which deployed over 400 observers, said the count had been "bad or very bad" in 48 per cent of polling stations visited, with monitors noting "several cases of deliberate falsification".

Mr Lukashenko, dubbed Europe's last dictator, had promised the elections would be freer than usual in an bid to end his international isolation and reduce his dependence on Russia, his traditional ally.

He wanted an end to the visa ban imposed on about 40 senior officials after the rigged 2006 presidential elections.

Mr Lukashenko first put out feelers to the west in the spring, but Russia's August invasion of Georgia lent more urgency to his efforts and accelerated the release of all political prisoners.

EU and US officials on Monday put a brave face on the outcome.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, said the OSCE assessment included "some positive indications but also a number of negative elements".

Jonathan Moore, head of the US mission in Belarus, said: "This was an opportunity [to improve relations] but this isn't the final opportunity. We will have to see."

However, opposition leaders pulled no punches. "This spits in the face of the European community," said Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail last month.

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



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