Europe urges Belarus to hold fair presidential election

MINSK, Nov. 2 (Reuters) - The European Union urged Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday to hold a fair election next month and member state Poland said an honest vote would free up billions of euros in investment.

The foreign ministers of Germany and Poland arrived in Minsk on Tuesday as part of a rare EU delegation to the isolated former Soviet state to tell Lukashenko that future ties with the union would hinge on how the presidential vote is conducted.

Relations with Western Europe have become increasingly important for Belarus following a series of spats over trade and energy subsidies with traditional ally Russia, which has made clear it will not back Lukashenko's re-election bid.

"The presidential elections will be a test, a litmus test for democracy," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said through a translator. Belarus must allow the opposition candidates and critical media to work freely, he said.

Europe's top vote watchdog, the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has never recognised an election in Belarus as free and fair.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Minsk would secure billions of euros in funding if the vote was fair.

"According to our calculations, if Belarus holds honest elections... it could count on a sum of around 3 billion over three years."

He said financing would be freed up if Belarus was given access to EU regional programmes. Funds would consist of credit and EU aid as part of the Eastern Partnership programme for the EU's eastern neighbours, Sikorski said.

Lukashenko and dozens of other officials were banned from travelling to the EU after accusations of fraud at the last election in 2006. That ban was suspended in 2008.

Lukashenko, reeling from a sharp deterioration in relations with traditional ally Russia and from an economic slowdown, promised the vote would be fair.

"I want to assure you than the elections will be run flawlessly. They will be run according to the highest democratic standards," Lukashenko said after the meeting. "The legitimacy of elections are more important for us than for anyone else."

The EU has made fitful attempts to improve ties with Belarus, which borders member states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. But accusations of Belarussian government pressure on opposition and human rights groups have kept relations cool.

Still, analysts say Lukashenko will have little trouble winning re-election against a divided opposition. He controls most media in the country of 10 million and has won popular support by maintaining Soviet-era subsidies.


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