Belarus leader vows liberal electoral laws to West

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday he was ready to liberalize electoral laws, sending a new signal that the ex-Soviet nation was seeking better relations with the West.

As ties with Belarus's ally Russia sour, Lukashenko has sought to improve relations with the West which has urged Minsk to liberalize electoral laws, allow free registration of civic organizations and guarantee media freedom.

In 2006 the European Union imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe's last dictator by a former U.S. administration. But the EU lifted its visa ban last year as a reward for freeing political prisoners.

"If within the framework of these (electoral) laws we can ensure the most liberal climate ... then we must do it together with you," Lukashenko's press service quoted him as telling Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina.

"We must do it also not to be reproached yet again for usurping power, establishing a dictatorship here and holding elections here the way we please. This should not be the case. This is why I am a supporter of the most liberal election."

Lukashenko, still widely popular in his Slav nation of 10 million, was referring to a presidential election due in early 2011 in which he will seek a new five-year term.

The veteran leader, in power since 1994, has overseen constitutional amendments which his critics say can make his presidency eternal. The West has not recognized a single election held in Belarus under Lukashenko to be free and fair.

A docile parliament with no opposition deputies was elected last year, to criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU.

"The decision adopted today by the president is about liberalizing electoral laws," Lukashenko's press service said. "The Central Election Commission will make a number of proposals to the head of state aimed to meet some proposals made by the OSCE and Belarussian political parties."

Moscow has watched with unease Lukashenko's flirting with the West. It particularly objects to Minsk's participation in the EU's new "Eastern Partnership" cooperation initiative for ex-communist states, which it views as anti-Russian.

Moscow has also so far failed to persuade Minsk to recognize the Russian-backed Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move that would spark the West's condemnation.

(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)



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