Observers call Belarus vote flawed

September 29, 2008 9:35:42 AM PDT
Parliamentary elections swept by supporters of Belarus' authoritarian president did not meet international standards, international observers said Monday, describing the campaign as strictly controlled and the vote count as flawed.Opposition activists called for the United States and European Union not to recognize the results.

Belarusian election officials insisted the election was free and fair, even though none of the 70 candidates representing the opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko won seats in parliament.

"The opposition has gone out of fashion," Central Elections Commission chief Lidiya Yermoshina said.

The election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose reports are widely regarded as authoritative, said the election fell short of international democratic standards.

"Promises to ensure the transparency of the vote count were not implemented. The count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 percent of polling stations visited," the mission said in a statement.

It also cited the "strictly controlled environment with a barely visible campaign" as a problem.

Lukashenko is a former collective farm boss who has run the small nation since 1994, quashing independent media, squeezing opposition groups and running the country with a Soviet-style command economy. Long a close ally of Russia, Lukashenko had in recent months sought to mend fences with the West, which has slapped harsh sanctions on government figures and key industries.

He has freed several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West and he had promised that the vote would be unprecedented in fairness. Opposition candidates were allowed to run - in contrast to the national elections four years ago.

Opposition leaders said that was nowhere near enough.

"A theater featuring a single actor continues to exist in Belarus," said Sergei Kalyakin, a communist leader allied with opposition groups. "It will be very difficult for West to step over its principles to recognize the elections."

After polls closed Sunday, about 500 opposition supporters turned out in central Minsk to protest the vote and several hundred marched to the headquarters of the country's secret police. The protest ended peacefully after three hours. No uniformed police were visible, but there appeared to have been plainclothes officers in the crowd.

"We can't say that the opposition has lost since in fact there was no election," Valentina Svyatskaya of the Belarusian Popular Front told The Associated Press.

Opposition protests in the past have often been crushed by police in scenes that have helped earn Belarus a reputation as Europe's last dictatorship.

Lukashenko's attempt to improve relations with the West is believed to reflect concerns about its reliance on neighboring Russia, which has cut the subsidized oil and gas exports that have helped keep the Belarusian economy afloat.

Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader who was among prisoners released last month, said Sunday that the West should not "close the door" on the Belarusian government even though the election was not free.

But after the results were announced, he sounded bitter.

"Lukashenko himself closed the door that the West was trying to open for him," Kozulin said.

Many Belarusians, particularly the elderly, credit Lukashenko with maintaining stability and preventing major economic calamity following the 1991 Soviet collapse.


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