MINSK - Belarusians are voting in parliamentary elections with little question that candidates loyal to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would dominate despite many opposition members being on the ballot.
The November 17 elections for the largely rubber-stamp parliament come with Belarus at a crossroads. Moscow is pressing Minsk on closer military and economy cooperation, prompting Lukashenka to court closer ties with the European Union, United States, and China.
The Belarusian leader, who has ruled the Eastern European country of some 9.5 million for 25 years, will face a presidential election in 2020 amid questions over how much longer his authoritarian rule can last.
Speaking to reporters after voting at a polling station in the capital, Minsk, Lukashenka said he planned to run for reelection next year. He also brushed off doubts about whether the parliamentary vote would be deemed valid by Western observers.
"I'm not in the habit of worrying about this matter," he said.
"If society doesn't like how the president organizes this [election], they can choose a new one next year," he said, speaking of himself in the third person. "I won't cling on with my cold, dead hands."
All 110 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly were being contested by more than 500 candidates. More than 200 other candidates, many of them affiliated with the opposition, were barred, most for allegedly not submitting enough valid signatures.
Among those kept off the ballot were Hanna Kanapatskaya, a member of the opposition United Civic Party, and Alena Anisim, an independent candidate with ties to the opposition. Both were elected to parliament in 2016, becoming the first independent members of that body since 1996.
Lukashenka announced the election on August 5, approximately one year before the current parliament's mandate was due to expire. Representatives will be elected for four-year terms.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would release the preliminary findings of its election observation mission on November 18.
Following the last parliamentary elections in Belarus in 2016, the OSCE cited “a significant number of procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency,” among other concerns and problems.
About a quarter of the country's voters have already cast their ballots in early voting from November 12 to November 16, a process that is seen by the opposition as fraught with abuse. Ballot boxes stand unguarded during the early voting process and votes are counted without observers being present.
Lidzia Yarmoshyna, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, on November 13 denied allegations of early voting violations, calling such reports “an invented scandal.”
Yarmoshyna also dismissed reports that university students were being told to vote or face problems, including being kicked out of their dorms.
An independent observer filmed a woman who tried to stuff a pile of ballots into a ballot box during early voting at a polling station in Brest, a city on the border with Poland.
Yarmoshyna, who has held the job for 23 years, responded by saying the observer who made the video should be stripped of his accreditation.
Ahead of the election, between 1,000 and 1,500 people turned out on Minsk’s Freedom Square to demand democratic change in what Western opponents of Lukashenka have described as “Europe's last dictatorship.”
The unsanctioned action on November 8 was called by Stsyapan Svyatlou, a popular vlogger better known as NEXTA.
NEXTA regularly posts satirical videos on YouTube and Telegram that often lampoon Lukashenka and his government. The one posted on October 25 about Lukashenka’s rise to power has been viewed nearly 1.7 million times.
Some 200 opposition supporters marched in Minsk on November 15 in what was billed as the "Meeting of Free People." No arrests were made, but four activists, including three from European Belarus, were detained by police on the eve of the rally.
Lukashenka’s government appears caught between a rock and a hard place.
Moscow is pushing Minsk to speed up military and economic integration, prompting Lukashenka to look elsewhere for leverage in talks with Russia.
The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis five years ago spooked Lukashenka and spurred the government to scale back its dependence on Russia.
Minsk is reliant on Russia for cheap oil and on roughly $5 billion worth of yearly subsidies for its outmoded Soviet-era economy that is mostly state-run, aside from its flourishing information-technology industry.
The two countries signed an agreement in 1999 which was supposed to create a unified state and their joint border is an open one under a customs union arrangement.
In comments to reporters, Lukashenka threatened that he might not sign a so-called integration deal with Moscow, scheduled for next month, to move the prospect of a union state closer.
"If our fundamental issues are not resolved: on the supply of hydrocarbons, on the opening of markets, no road maps can be signed," Lukashenka said.
In 2016, the European Union lifted most of its sanctions against Belarus and Lukashenka's government. Last week, he visited Vienna — his first trip to an EU country in three years.
Relations with the United States have been on the mend as well. The two countries in September said they would resume hosting ambassadors after an 11-year hiatus.
China has also warmed up to Belarus lately. In September, the China Development Bank issued a $500 million loan to Belarus after Moscow stalled on a $600 million loan.
China and Belarus are also developing the Great Stone Industrial Park, the biggest foreign investment project in Belarus.