Westerwelle meets Lukashenko, urges free Belarus vote (Roundup)

Minsk/Vilnius - German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Tuesday and urged that upcoming elections be free and fair.

In a visit in which he was joined by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Westerwelle said that further progress in Minsk's relations with the European Union depended on democratic reforms.

'From our view of things, the presidential elections will be a litmus test for your commitment to democracy,' Westerwelle told Lukashenko.

Lukashenko, widely dubbed as 'Europe's last dictator' by human rights organisations, is hoping to be re-elected on December 19th.

The Belarusian leader replied that the December 19 vote would be democratic, and then told the Berlin minister: 'You can count the ballots yourself, if you want to.'

Westerwelle, making the first visit to Belarus by a German foreign minister in 15 years, also called above all for opposition candidates to have free access to the state-controlled media.

Both Westerwelle and Sikorski were also scheduled to hold meetings with other presidential candidates and opposition figures.

The two ministers also indicated that Belarus could look forward to more cooperation and greater financial aid from the European Union if introduces democratic change and protects human rights.

Sikorski, on his flight to Minsk, said his visit was meant to send a message that Belarus is a European country and that therefore European standards of democracy, human rights and the rights of national minorities must be applied.

Fair elections could lead to a 'generous offer of opening on the part of the EU,' Sikorski said, according to the Polish news agency PAP. Otherwise, things would remain the same as before.

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. In the last election, in 2006, he scored 83 per cent of the vote.

Westerwelle's talks in Belarus came as he began wrapping up a three-nation tour which also includes Russia and Lithuania.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's top assistant, Ronald Pofalla, is due in the Balarus capital on Wednesday for a meeting of the Minsk Forum, considered one of the most important platform for talks between government officials and civic groups.

Pofalla, who heads the chancellor's office with full cabinet rank, is likely to criticize Belarus' authoritarian government in his speech to the forum. Author: Christoph Sator


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