Lawmakers loyal to hardline Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko look set to retain power in an election on Sunday, but the easing of restrictions on opposition candidates could help the ex-Soviet nation further improve ties with the West. The opposition, which has not been represented in the 110-seat parliament since 1996, is not expected to win any seats, but in a concession to Western calls for greater transparency its contenders have been able to register more easily. External monitors will also be given access to the vote count. Relations between Minsk and the West have warmed since recession-hit Belarus held a peaceful presidential election last October.
The release of political prisoners and Lukashenko’s role in hosting Ukraine-Russia peace talks also eased international criticism of the veteran leader, who the United States once said ran Europe’s last dictatorship.
The European Union ended five years of sanctions against Belarus in February, while the United States has relaxed some of its restrictions on Minsk and said the authorities’ handling of Sunday’s vote will factor into an upcoming sanctions review.
“For the Belarussian authorities, this election is more an issue of foreign than domestic policy,” said Denis Melyantsov, senior analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. “I think we’ll get an absolutely sterile parliament, made up of carefully selected lawmakers,” he added.