Opposition parties in Belarus said they will boycott next week's parliamentary elections despite assurances from President Alexander Lukashenko they will be democratic.
Lukashenko has been called "Europe's last dictator"
The United Democratic Forces alliance justified the move Sunday, Sept. 21, by saying the government had refused to allow the opposition to sit on regional election commissions, thus depriving them of the chance to monitor the vote.
Lukashenko, criticized by human rights groups in his homeland as "Europe's last dictator," said Belarus had strictly adhered to the guidelines laid down by the West in preparing the elections.
On Saturday, the president, who has been in power since 1994, threatened to place relations with the West on ice if it declares the Sept. 28 polls undemocratic.
If there is no recognition of the elections "we will stop talking to them," the president told the news agency Interfax.
Opposition calls for more freedoms
The Belarus opposition has complained of the president's authoritarian style of leadership and lack of press freedom and free speech in the former Soviet republic.
Opposition protest rallies were frequently banned or broken up with force by the police.
Alliance spokesman Winzuk Vetsherko said opposition parties were at a disadvantage in the upcoming polls because candidates "are not elected but named" to sit in parliament.
The opposition planned to field 78 candidates to contest the 100 seats at stake in the legislature, but left a decision on whether to boycott the polls up to the contenders themselves.
Lukaschenko denounced the opposition as "unemployed rowdies," who had no chance of being elected. He said campaigning for the election had proceeded smoothly, a sign of "the healthy state of society" in the country.
Observers to monitor election
Hundreds of foreign observers will be monitoring the polls. Experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will give their verdict on whether they are free and fair.
On Monday, the European Union said it would reward Belarus with stronger official, economic and cultural relations if the elections are sufficiently fair.