Belarusians head to the polls Sunday to elect members to the ex-Soviet republic’s rubber-stamp parliament.
The elections are being closely watched by the West to see how much President Alexander Lukashenko will loosen his iron-fisted grip on power.
Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship,” the nation of 10 million has been ruled Lukashenko for 25 years.
But the 65-year-old president has sought to build better relations with the United States and European Union in recent years as he seeks to balance ties with neighbor Russia.
In September, the United States and Belarus announced they would exchange ambassadors after an 11-year freeze. Washington also signaled it would scale back remaining sanctions depending on how the parliamentary elections and a presidential vote in 2020 are conducted.
While the United States and the European Union in 2016 eased most sanctions imposed on Belarus due to human rights concerns and restrictions on political freedoms, Russia has increased pressure on Lukashenko to deepen ties between Minsk and Moscow.
Russia and Belarus formed a nominal “union” in 1996 and maintain close economic and military cooperation, but they continue to have disputes over energy prices and import duties.
Adding to tensions a Belarusian refusal to recognize the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also cut subsidies that have helped prop up Belarus’ state-run economy.
Lukashenko has dismissed attempts by Russia to strong-arm a merger of the two states. There has been speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to revive the Union State of Russia and Belarus project as a means to extend his presidency.
Putin is currently constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024, but serving as leader of a new, unified Belarusian and Russian state could be a way to skirt around that limitation.
In the last parliamentary election in 2016, Lukashenko allowed two opposition candidates to win seats in the 110-member parliament for the first time in 20 years. This time, both of those candidates have been prevented from running on technical grounds.
Despite the disqualification of the two opposition parliamentarians, more than 300 opposition candidates are contesting the election though some others were barred from registering.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has 400 election observers on the ground.
cw/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
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