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Lukashenka Urges West To Recognize Upcoming Belarusian Vote

Warming to the West?

Warming to the West?

MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has urged the West to recognize his country's parliamentary election later this month and work to improve relations.

Lukashenka, in power for 14 years, is accused by the United States and the European Union of rigging elections, jailing opponents, and closing down free media. No election held in the former Soviet republic since the mid-1990s has been deemed free or fair.

But he has sought improved ties in the past year after quarrelling with Russia over energy prices. Western countries say the election will be a test of his commitment to democracy.

"We want you to accept us, to endorse and recognize our election," Lukashenka told the "Financial Times" and Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" in comments released by Belarusian news agencies before publication. "We do not want to talk to you across the Iron Curtain which you have erected on the borders of Belarus."

The United States and the EU have imposed travel bans and financial sanctions on Belarus.

But since Belarusian courts last month released the last of its detainees deemed political prisoners, Washington and the EU have said ties could be much improved, provided the September 28 election is conducted freely and fairly.

Election officials have registered far more opposition candidates for the vote than in previous elections and hundreds of observers have been invited to attend.

But opposition groups are still demanding greater representation on commissions that oversee the vote count.

"As soon as you said that the parliamentary election was important to you, we opened the country to you," Lukashenka was quoted as telling the two newspapers.

Riot police on September 16 dispersed an unauthorized protest by several dozen opposition activists in Minsk's main square.

Lukashenka has said before that he would like to see opposition members, shut out of parliament since a 2004 election, win seats, if only to temper Western criticism.