With eye on West, Belarus holds slightly freer election

September 10, 2016 5:11 PM EDT

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By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Lawmakers loyal to hardline Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko retained power in an election on Sunday, but the opposition's win of a seat for the first time in 20 years could help the ex-Soviet nation further improve ties with the West.

The opposition, which has not been represented in the 110-seat parliament since 1996, had not been expected to gain any seats, but in a concession to Western calls for greater transparency its candidates were able to register more easily. External monitors were also given access to the vote count.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has kept Belarus in a close strategic alliance with Moscow. However, some cracks appeared in the relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and since then Minsk has made overtures to the West.

Anna Konopatskaya, a member of opposition party United Civil Party, won a place in parliament, election results showed. Independent candidate Elena Anisim, who has links to the opposition, was also elected.

The presence of the opposition in parliament will not change the political landscape, but it shows the authorities are willing to make some adjustments in the interests of boosting Western ties.

"We've done everything so that there aren't complaints from the Western side. We accommodated their requests," Lukashenko told journalists after casting his vote in Minsk.

A buffet that included a stuffed suckling pig and a cake in the shape of Belarus had been laid out at the president's polling station. Providing buffets is a Belarussian tradition to encourage citizens to vote and many were seen across the country.

Relations between Minsk and the West have warmed since recession-hit Belarus held a peaceful presidential election last October.

The release of political prisoners and Lukashenko's role in hosting Ukraine-Russia peace talks also eased international criticism of the veteran leader, who the United States once said ran Europe's last dictatorship.

The European Union ended five years of sanctions against Belarus in February. The United States has also relaxed some of its restrictions on Minsk and said the authorities' handling of Sunday's vote would be a factor in an upcoming review of sanctions.

"For the Belarussian authorities, this election is more an issue of foreign than domestic policy," said Denis Melyantsov, senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.

DEMOCRATIC CHANGE

Opposition groups did not stage a mass boycott or protests like those held over previous elections. Instead they decided to take part in the hope of boosting their support.

The West has pushed for democratic change in Belarus but has been shifting its approach to engagement rather than isolation, also with a view to countering what it sees as a more aggressive Russia.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored Sunday's vote and has criticized previous elections for being undemocratic, said on Monday it had had better access to the vote counting this time.

"There has been some improvement," observer mission chief Kent Harstedt told a briefing in Minsk, but cautioned that the OSCE had hoped for "faster progress" on electoral reforms.

The easing of Western sanctions is necessary for Belarus's plans to improve commercial ties with the EU and to lessen its dependence on the crisis-hit Russian market, which currently accounts for 40 percent of Belarussian exports.

Seeking loans from international lenders, including $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund, Belarus has implemented cautious economic reforms such as raising the retirement age and relaxing foreign currency rules.

Russia's economic crisis, which is linked to weak global oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, has hit other former Soviet republics including Belarus, where the economy shrank by 3.9 percent in 2015.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Peter Cooney and Alan Crosby)



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