Belarusian leader defends landslide vote

Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus (AP) _ Belarus' authoritarian president on Tuesday defended the ex-Soviet nation's parliamentary elections despite criticism from the West, casting the vote as a significant step toward democracy.

The opposition did not win a single seat in Sunday's voting. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election fell short of democratic standards _ an assessment echoed by the United States.

Russia, however, praised the elections and criticized the OSCE assessment.

And Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told OSCE observers that the elections were conducted in line with Belarusian law.

"Belarus expects Europe to lift sanctions which have offended us," Lukashenko said at the meeting. "Visa restrictions are a shame for Europe." He was referring to economic and travel sanctions imposed by the European Union. The United States has imposed similar sanctions.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than 14 years, quashing dissent and opposition parties and shutting down independent news media.

Election officials in Belarus said the election was free and fair, even though none of the 70 opposition candidates won places in the 110-seat parliament. Opposition leaders called Tuesday for an investigation into alleged election manipulation, and a re-count in districts where they suspect major violations in the vote count.

Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Civil Front, said that in one Minsk district election authorities say more that 1,200 people voted while independent observers say the number was just over 800. He said he suspects the government handed 400 false votes to loyal candidates.

Lukashenko's isolation deepened this year when his nation's main sponsor and ally, Russia, sharply increased energy prices for Belarus. Apparently signaling a desire to mend the rift with the West, Lukashenko softened his anti-Western rhetoric, and last month Belarusian authorities freed the last remaining political prisoners whose release the West had demanded. "Let's cooperate normally. If Europe makes a step forward in political and economic cooperation, we will make three steps," Lukashenko said Tuesday.

In an apparent attempt to avert the Kremlin's anger over his efforts to mend ties with the West, Lukashenko added that, "Europe would make a big mistake if it makes worsening of our ties with Russia a condition for improving ties."



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