MINSK/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- It was taken as a promising sign when Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka allowed more than 500 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the country to monitor the September 28 parliamentary elections.
In the end, however, it was not enough. "Our overall assessment is that the parliamentary elections in Belarus, despite some minor improvements, overall fell short of OSCE commitments," Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher, a spokesman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, announced.
The appraisal is likely to have a damning effect on efforts to improve ties
between Belarus and the West. The European Union had indicated it would review its sanctions regime against Minsk if the OSCE gave a positive assessment of the vote.
Lukashenka had released political prisoners and allowed more than 70 members of the political opposition to participate in the ballot. He had expressed confidence a clean vote would help bring Belarus closer to Europe and further from Moscow's aggressive attempts to raise energy prices.
Now it appears Moscow will remain the more influential force. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced on September 29 that he will travel to Minsk next week, a step that appears to reflect Kremlin satisfaction with the vote's outcome.Business As Usual
Roughly one out of every four candidates competing in the vote were members of the political opposition. But Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the head of the country's Central Election Commission, announced that not a single member of the political opposition won a seat in the 110-seat chamber.
"I can only comment [on election] figures, and the figures show this," Yarmoshyna said. "As far as the question of why [opposition candidates] didn't win is concerned, the voters didn't back them. I would understand if the difference in the voting figures was close; one could discuss the issue. But if you look at the difference between opposition candidates and those who won the vote, the figures are not compatible at all."
Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin was the highest finisher among the opposition candidates, but won just 15.6 percent of the vote in his district.
Such results would be unsurprising in a typical Belarusian election, which ordinarily have the appearance of tightly orchestrated events that leave little to chance.
But President Lukashenka, reeling from a series of rows with Moscow over mounting gas prices and seeking closer ties with the West, wanted it to seem different this time. The European Union, in turn, had indicated it could reward a clean election by easing sanctions.
So Lukashenka had taken steps to ensure the vote would resemble, at least outwardly, a legitimate political contest.
The 260-plus candidates' list included nearly 80 members of the political opposition, and the vote was conducted in full view of more than 500 international observers from the OSCE.
The opposition has called the vote a sham. Some 800 activists marched in the capital, Minsk, late on election day to protest the ballot. They claim, in part, that advance voting allowed the government to dump opposition ballots because the early stages had not been as closely monitored as the actual vote.'Sham' Elections
In its preliminary findings, the OSCE noted even regular ballot-counting was conducted behind closed doors, making it impossible to monitor.
"Our observers reported that although voting was well-conducted throughout the day, the integrity of the process was undermined by the vote count, which was judged bad or very bad in almost half of the observations," said Klas Bergman, a spokesman for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly:
Anatol Lyabedzka, the head of the opposition United Civic Party, said the vote favored pro-presidential candidates from the start, because only a handful of opposition members were included in the country's election commissions.
"Our position has been clear: We do not recognize this [election] campaign as fair or legitimate because only 0.05 percent of our people were included in [election] commissions counting the votes, and 99.95 percent of commission members are people politically or economically dependent on Lukashenka," Lyabedzka said.
Alyaksandr Kazulin arrives to vote with his two daughters.
Alyaksandr Kazulin, who ran against Lukashenka in the March 2006 presidential election, was recently given an early release from jail, where he was serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for his role in protests following the vote.
His daughter, Volha, ran for a parliamentary seat, but received just 8.6 percent of the vote. Kazulin said the opposition has "a lot of facts and evidence" proving voter fraud, but encouraged the West to continue a dialogue with Minsk.
"Of course [the West] should not shut doors to the Belarusian political regime. It's necessary to work with them, teach them how things should be done in the civilized world and civilized community," Kazulin said.
"But I think it has to be clear that dialogue means cooperation, and cooperation suggests steps toward each other. That's why if the West takes a step toward the Belarusian political regime then this regime would have to made the necessary corresponding steps -- not declarations, not statements, but concrete actions and real changes for the democratization of Belarusian society."
The new Chamber of Representatives is expected to hold its first session on October 25.