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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

At Vote, Lukashenko Criticizes Russia

APA Belarussian leaving a voting booth during local elections in Minsk on Sunday. The poster says: "Happy New Year!"
MINSK -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko hit out at Russia in what appeared to be an effort to bolster his image among Belarussians as they voted in local elections Sunday.

The vote is seen as a test for the country's isolated regime after a bitter oil dispute with Russia that could have economically painful effects. Some 7 million voters are eligible to take part in the election of 1,581 local councils.

"They thought that they could put a noose around Lukashenko's neck and get everything they wanted. It didn't work out," the president said as he voted at a polling station in Minsk.

Lukashenko reiterated his refusal of a Kremlin offer to incorporate Belarus into Russia, saying: "I don't want to give up our sovereignty and independence."

The main opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, suggested that the local elections would not accurately reflect public opinion, contending that they were being held "under colossal pressure from the authorities," and would be falsified. But he said the opposition would use the elections to tell voters about "the dangerous situation in which Lukashenko has placed Belarus."

Russia has just lifted a days-long oil blockade that cut off Belarus and also disrupted supplies to Europe.

Only 200 opposition candidates were able to register for the election of 22,500 members of local councils. Most seats are being sought by a single person, unopposed. One opposition leader, the United Civil Party's Anatoly Lebedko, withdrew his candidacy on the eve of the ballot in protest at what he described as an electoral process "designed to appoint and not elect lawmakers."

"I have lost trust in Lukashenko and his policies, but there is no one from the opposition among the candidates and I crossed out all the names from the list," said Andrei Turovsky, 48, an engineer who was voting in Minsk.

U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law Friday an act that tightens sanctions against Belarus and reauthorizes money for independent media and democratic groups opposed to Lukashenko's government.

The legislation renews the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004.

It directs the Bush administration to deny Belarus U.S. loans and prohibits most exports.

It also includes a statement demanding the release of political prisoners in Belarus and denying recognition of the results of Lukashenko's re-election in March.