Belarus Hopes Election Will Improve Relations

MINSK -- Belarus chooses a new parliament this weekend in an election that authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will win Western approval that he can translate into better relations with Washington and the European Union.

Lukashenko, accused by Western countries of crushing basic rights during 14 years in power, says officials have bent over backwards to meet requirements for the election and confidently predicts that the contest will be judged free and fair.

No Belarussian election has been given such an assessment since the mid-1990s. This time, about 70 opposition candidates are on the ballot, far more than previously, and 477 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are attending.

"We want you to accept us, to endorse and recognize our election. We do not want to talk to you across the Iron Curtain, which you have erected on the borders of Belarus," Lukashenko told foreign reporters last week, referring to the West.

Belarus' liberal and nationalist opposition, long racked by internal disputes, was shut out of parliament in 2004. Its leaders this time hope to win as many as 30 of the assembly's 110 seats.

Even the president says he is willing to have some rivals in the chamber to satisfy Western critics.

Opposition leaders complain that they are still being denied permission to witness the count but overcame divisions to reject calls by some activists for a boycott. The OSCE also said it had no assurances it could witness the count and criticized a dull campaign for leaving voters ill informed.

"If the authorities in the remaining days maintain control over this outburst of democracy and allow a few opposition figures into parliament, the chances are the election will be recognized," said independent analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

Lukashenko and 40 officials remain barred from the United States and EU on grounds that he rigged his 2006 reelection.

Broadly popular in the country of 10 million, he has sought better ties with the West, especially the EU, after a row last year with traditional ally Russia over energy prices.

He warned Western leaders this week that if they failed to endorse the poll, all dialogue would cease. But his rhetoric has softened, and he has cultivated Minsk's diplomatic corps, who see a well-run election as a step toward normal relations.

An EU diplomat said this week that a decision to ease sanctions could be taken next month if the election went well. Belarus could then benefit from the European Neighborhood Policy extended by Brussels to former communist nonmembers in the region -- funding for projects and better access to European markets.

"There is realism that these elections will not be the acme of democracy," the diplomat said. "But the EU response can be calibrated to reflect the level of freeness and fairness -- as in how many officials are taken off the banned visa list, what benefits from the European Neighborhood Policy are released."