Belarus polls under scrutiny as strongman reaches out to West

Minsk (AFP) –


Belarusians vote in parliamentary polls on Sunday with critics already condemning the election as fraudulent despite strongman President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to reach out to the West.

Lukashenko -- who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.

In Sunday's polls voters will be electing the 110 MPs of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber in what the opposition calls a rubber-stamp parliament.

Those critical of Lukashenko face little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.

"The elections have been reduced to a ritual, just like in the USSR," Ales Bialiatski, head of rights group Vyasna, said in a statement.

Alaksej Janukevich, deputy head of the Belarus National Front opposition party, told AFP he believed the authorities had chosen "the familiar scenario of falsifications".

This comes despite renewed efforts by Lukashenko to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, made a rare visit to Europe this month, meeting with Austrian leaders in Vienna.

Defending his record, the 65-year-old said he wanted the European Union to be "an important political and business partner" for his country.

He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in late August, saying a "new chapter" was opening in ties with Washington.

As he faces a presidential election himself next year, Lukashenko is looking to the West to take further steps after already lifting some sanctions imposed after a 2011 crackdown on protests.

He is also seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains firmly in its sphere of influence.

- EU urges fair vote -

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the bloc would be watching Sunday's election closely.

"Our standards when it comes to elections are very high," she told reporters in Brussels. "We expect nothing else when it comes to Belarus: fair transparent elections in line with international standards."

But there is little optimism among foreign observers for a more democratic vote.

"The campaign so far is low-key, with a limited number of events organised," the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, said in a report this month.

People did not expect polls to be "genuinely competitive" and "had little confidence in the process", the report added.

The OSCE is sending 400 observers to monitor the polls. It has not recognised any elections in Belarus since 1995 as free and fair.

An alliance of rights activists said opposition candidates were unable to get their speeches broadcast, condemning "censorship and unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression".

Opposition parties complained they had had difficulty registering candidates and even observers.

"There is no question of expecting free and fair elections," said the opposition's Janukevich, as a dozen of his party's candidates had either been dropped or risked last-minute elimination.

The leader of another opposition party, Nikolai Kozlov of the United Civic Front, told AFP that only 37 of its 54 candidates had been allowed to stand.

He slammed the polls as utterly predictable.

"We already know, 99 percent, who will win in each district," he said.

"They are taking the most active democratic candidates out of the campaign, those who could have created problems for the current authorities," said Bialiatski, who spent two and a half years in jail during Lukashenko's crackdown on the opposition.

Political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that with ties with the West already improving, authorities saw little reason to loosen their grip.

"The problems of democracy and human rights... have faded into the background," he said.

"For the authorities, there is more to lose than to gain from an opposition election campaign."