Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko wants the European Union to recognize Sunday's vote after years of EU sanctions against the former Russian republic. To do so, Lukashenko has committed to easing pressure on the opposition.
Belarussians voted Sunday in parliamentary elections that could determine whether President Alexander Lukashenko's regime warms to the West or moves deeper into Russia's orbit.
Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has been courting the West in the past few months amid signs of wavering loyalty to Moscow over its energy prices and war in Georgia.
The wily autocrat has ruled the backward former Soviet republic of around 10 million people with an iron fist for the past 14 years, but hopes the European Union and United States will approve the vote's democratic credentials.
Belarus, which lies wedged between Russia and the 27-nation European bloc and is an important transit country for Russian gas exports, has fallen well short of a positive assessment during his reign.
If it is deemed to have made progress, the West could ease sanctions against it, lift a travel ban on its leaders and offer it economic aid.
But the conduct of the vote came in for criticism from the opposition soon after voting opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT).
That came when a dispute over access to election material erupted between an opposition observer and an official at a polling station near the historic centre of Minsk, where few voters turned out to vote.
"We are accustomed to the Soviet regime, we are disciplined," one of them, 82-year-old Nikolai Zelenkevitch, told AFP.
Another, 27-year-old Nikolai Lugovtsov said for his part that "normal people cannot vote for a candidate who was placed there by Lukashenko."
Critics fear the poll will be blighted by massive fraud, especially because 26 percent of the electorate had taken advantage of a law allowing them to vote in advance earlier this week, without independent monitoring.
The opposition has already slammed the poll as undemocratic and plans a rally as soon as polling ends to protest what it fears will be widespread voting fraud by allies of the 54-year-old president.
Western election observers say Belarussian authorities have made "real efforts" to increase fairness, citing the greater time allotted them on television.
But the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Lukashenko's critics were being ignored in state-controlled media, adding there had been "no improvement" from previous elections.
That is one of the complaints of the anti-Lukashenko opposition which plans to stage the post-poll rally in Minsk's October Square, where thousands camped out to protest the results of a March 2006 presidential vote.
In August, Belarus released three people the West views as political prisoners, but dissidents have dismissed the moves as cosmetic in a country that has repeatedly come under fire by human rights and elections monitors.
Of the 263 candidates fighting for the 110 seats in the lower house of parliament, only 70 are from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest are Lukashenko loyalists.
At the former Soviet state's last parliamentary elections in 2004, there were 690 candidates including 250 from the opposition, none of whom won a place in the lower house.
The vote is to be monitored by almost 400 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's elections watchdog. The first results are expected on Monday.
Date created : 2008-09-28