Belarusians Vote in Local Elections

The Associated Press
Sunday, January 14, 2007; 11:32 PM

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarusians voted Sunday in local elections seen as a test for the ex-Soviet nation's isolated regime, following a bitter oil dispute with neighboring Russia that could have economically painful effects.

Leaders of the embattled opposition, one of whom withdrew from the race on the grounds they could not compete fairly, said the elections took place under tight official control and predicted widespread falsification.

But the polls still represented a rare opportunity for the opposition to communicate directly with the electorate. Under the hard-line rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, television is under state control and few independent media are allowed.

Some 7 million voters were eligible to take part in the election of 1,581 local councils. Turnout two hours before polls closed stood at about 70 percent, the electoral commission said.

Belarus' Soviet-style, state-controlled economy has long relied on cheap Russian energy, which Lukashenko has used to buttress his popularity during his almost 13-year rule.

But last week, Russia stopped shipping oil through a major pipeline that crosses Belarus, accusing its neighbor of siphoning oil from the pipeline to cover a transit fee Minsk had imposed in response to a duty Russia had placed on oil exports to Belarus.

The 72-hour oil blockade cut off Belarus and also disrupted supplies to Germany, Poland and other European countries.

Russian oil shipments resumed after Belarus lifted the transit fee, and the two countries agreed to lower the Russian export duty by about 70 percent. They also agreed that Russia would get most of the profits from refined oil products Belarus makes using Russian oil and sells to Europe.

Belarus stands to lose billions in revenue from refined oil products. Russia this year also doubled the price it charges Belarus for natural gas.

Lukashenko lashed out Sunday at Russia, which has become a target on state-controlled television networks, in what appeared to be an effort to bolster his image among Belarusians.

"They thought that they could put a noose around Lukashenko's neck and get everything they wanted. It didn't work out," he said as he voted at a polling station in the capital, Minsk.

The main opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, suggested the local elections would not accurately reflect public opinion, contending that they were being held "under colossal pressure from the authorities" and would be falsified.

But he said the opposition would use the elections to tell voters about "the dangerous situation in which Lukashenko has placed Belarus."

Only 200 opposition candidates were able to register for the election of 22,500 local council seats. Most seats were being sought by a single person, unopposed.

"I have lost trust in Lukashenko and his policies, but there is no one from the opposition among the candidates and I crossed out all the names from the list," said Andrei Turovsky, a 48-year-old engineer who was voting in Minsk.

Belarus is already facing European Union and U.S. sanctions imposed over democracy concerns.

© 2007 The Associated Press