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Belarus: OSCE Warns On Election Credibility

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has warned Belarus that the results of next month's presidential elections will not be credible if its monitors remain shut out of the country. The organization says time is running out for observers to check whether preparations for the 9 September poll meet democratic standards. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox has the story.

Prague, 8 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since yesterday, election monitors based in Warsaw have had their bags packed, ready to catch a plane to Minsk at a moment's notice.

The observers are from the OSCE's organization for democratic institutions and human rights (ODIHR). They hope to monitor what's left of Belarus' presidential election campaign ahead of the 9 September poll.

But whether they eventually board the plane depends on Belarusian authorities, who have repeatedly failed to issue the invitation the observers require.

Since he was first elected president of Belarus in 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled the country in an increasingly authoritarian manner. In 1996 he extended his term as president and dissolved parliament, and Western governments declared last year's parliamentary elections rigged.

In a bid to boost their chances of ousting Lukashenka, four opposition leaders have united behind one candidate, trade union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk. But they say they have little chance of success unless the election is fair.

That's what the OSCE's election monitors were hoping to determine.

They had hoped to be in Belarus at the beginning of this month, which would have given them the six weeks or so they say they need. Then they were told they needed new visas and the departure date was shifted to yesterday.

With still no invitation in sight, ODIHR director Gerard Stoudmann yesterday warned Belarus that the credibility of the election result was now doubtful and that time was running out.

Today a spokesman from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry told the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti that an invitation will be sent shortly, the latest of many such assurances. Lukashenka himself later echoed the spokesman's statement. ITAR-TASS reported him as saying the invitation had been delayed because the OSCE had not yet decided to send its observers.

But regardless of whether an invitation does actually come in the next few days, the ODIHR says it's too late to monitor some crucial events in the run-up to the elections.

Branimir Radev is deputy head of the ODIHR's election section. He says that it is common practice for countries to invite his office's monitors at least two months before an election.

He says that, while his office has been tussling with the Belarusian authorities, important campaign events have already taken place.

"Very important events are already going on or have already passed. The gathering of signatures of support for the candidates; the appointment of the electoral commissions. Right now is the period of registration of candidates, which expires tomorrow or Friday. After that there is three days to appeal to the Supreme Court and three days for the court to decide. I repeat, very important events in this campaign are underway or have already passed. We have not been able to monitor these events. Even if we deploy, let's imagine, tomorrow, there will be some things in this campaign which we have not been able to observe. That will be reflected in our final report."

He says there's no cut-off date beyond which the monitors will decide it's too late to go.

"We don't have such a date. However, in our inner minds, one month before the elections, or that is, later than a month, would be already too late. I'm talking about any election, not just Belarus."

The opposition says it's clear Lukashenka is determined to hang on to power.

Anatolii Lebedko heads the United Civic Party. He too says it's already too late for a monitoring mission.

"To get a full picture of what's going on in Belarus, it's necessary to observe not just polling day but [the period] before the potential candidates are officially registered. The authorities want to limit the period the international observers are here literally to the day of the election."

He says it suits the authorities just fine to drag their feet over inviting the observers, as they are unable to document such infringements as the squeezing of what little independent media still exists and Lukashenka's use of state media as an electoral platform.

"Today the state media's main function is to spread disinformation and advertise one single product -- its name is Alyaksandr Lukashenka."

The authorities' hesitation to invite the OSCE comes as no surprise, as Lukashenka has accused the organization of working with the opposition.

Lebedko sadly repeats an old Soviet-era saying that he says still applies to Belarus: "It's not who's voting that counts, but who's counting the votes."