AFP — Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko looked on Monday to the EU to ease sanctions against his regime after a landslide electoral win, but international observers said the poll was tainted by irregularities.
Once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by Washington, Lukashenko, 61, won a fifth consecutive term on Sunday, picking up 83.5 percent of the vote, according to official figures.
But observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Monday said the ballot’s integrity had been undermined by “significant problems,” especially during the counting of the votes.
“It is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments,” Kent Harstedt, head of the OSCE mission, said in a statement.
In Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers were set to consider lifting the Belarussian sanctions, with a decision to be taken before October 31, when the measures expire.
“As far as we could observe from Berlin, there has not been as much repression around the elections as previously,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said as he arrived for the meeting.
Steinmeier said the vote had brought few surprises but added that Belarus was changing, pointing to the “liberation of political prisoners” before the elections.
EU diplomats had said that Brussels was ready to reconsider sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime provided the polls passed off without major protests and in an “acceptable climate.”
A shrewd operator who has played Brussels against Moscow, Lukashenko has recently raised his standing with the EU by seeking to distance his ex-Soviet nation from Russia.
Current EU sanctions imposed for rights abuses involve travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and around 170 other individuals and 14 groups.
Some of the other sanctions against his regime date back to 2004.
Between Russia and the West
In an attempt to assuage Western criticism, ahead of the vote Lukashenko released from jail six opposition leaders and won some praise for hosting international peace talks.
“Lukashenko won but mass protests and arrests of the opposition did not take place this time,” Alexander Klaskovsky, an analyst with Belapan think tank, told AFP.
“It would be enough to confirm minimal progress in these conditions for the normalization of ties with the United States and the EU to continue.”
In power since 1994, Lukashenko unleashed a crackdown on the opposition after thousands took to the streets to protest his disputed re-election in December 2010.
Belarus’s former Soviet master Russia, which props up Lukashenko’s regime financially, has been warily eyeing the ever-opportunistic leader’s attempts at rapprochement with the West.
Shortly before Moscow’s tensions with the West climbed to new heights over the Kremlin’s bombing campaign in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his interest in setting up an airbase in Belarus.
In a phone call on Monday, Putin congratulated Lukashenko on a “convincing victory,” expressing his readiness to ramp up ties.
‘Civilized, calm campaign’
The veteran leader ran against three virtual unknowns, with opposition leaders barred from standing in the polls.
His nearest rival, Tatiana Korotkevich, mustered just 4.42 percent of the ballot.
The result, though preliminary, is the highest ever for Lukashenko whose government made a huge effort to ensure a turnout of over 87 percent.
“I think the election campaign was civilized, cultured and calm,” said the head of the electoral commission, Lidiya Yermoshina.
But top opposition figures including Mikola Statkevich and Anatoly Lebedko said they would not recognize the results of the poll, pointing to what they said were widespread falsifications.
“We do not consider the spectacle performed by the Belarussian authorities to be an election and do not recognize it,” opposition leader Vladimir Neklyaev told AFP.
While Lukashenko allowed an unauthorized opposition rally in the capital to go ahead without police intervention on Saturday, he warned he would not tolerate such protests after the vote.
“You know what will happen,” he said.
‘Democracy is just words’
The embattled Belarussian opposition has urged Brussels against lifting the punitive measures.
“If they are together with this murderer, this criminal, then democracy is just words,” Statkevich told AFP.
On the eve of the election, the newly crowned winner of the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize, Svetlana Alexievich, warned Europe to beware of Lukashenko, describing his regime as a “soft dictatorship.”
Lukashenko had the lowest result in Minsk where 65.58 percent of voters backed him, while 20.6 percent in the capital voted against all candidates, the most popular option for those who opposed the long-serving leader.
The mustachioed leader enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regime’s durability.
He is believed to be grooming his 11-year-old son Kolya as his successor.