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Many Belarus Voters Skeptical About Fairness of Election - 2001-09-09

Voting has started in the former Soviet republic of Belarus to elect a new president. But, critics of incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko say it is unlikely he will give up power.

Polls opened at eight in the morning across Belarus, but critics of President Lukashenko say the outcome of the vote has already been determined.

On the eve of the election, former trade union leader Vladimir Goncharik, Mr. Lukashenko's main competitor for the presidency, accused the Belarusian president of rigging the vote in his favor by falsifying votes, and intimidating voters. During a news conference, Mr. Goncharik said there is no way Mr. Lukashenko would leave power.

Mr. Goncharik said he has no doubt that Mr. Lukashenko would lose a fair election.

Mr. Lukashenko has repeatedly denied charges that he is rigging the election, and says they will be free and fair.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has held the presidency since 1994, has repeatedly come under attack from human rights organizations, which say his government has suppressed free speech and jailed political opponents.

However, the president is very popular with many of the country's 10-million voters, due to his efforts to preserve such aspects of the Soviet system as high pensions and generous social services.

Supporters of Mr. Lukashenko have criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is in Belarus to monitor the elections, and which has expressed concern about their fairness. Mr. Lukashenko's supporters accuse the organization of openly supporting the opposition.

A spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs on Saturday said the head of the OSCE office in Minsk should leave the country after the election.

The head of the OSCE's election monitoring body, Gerard Stoudmann, said his organization was the subject of what he called a "smear campaign," and said he was investigating reports that Belarusian officials had attempted to intimidate members of the OSCE staff.

Results of today's voting may be known as early as Monday. The OSCE will also be issuing a report on the fairness of the election on Monday.