Observers ban for Belarus poll
MINSK, Belarus (CNN) -- Elections officials have banned a group of observers from monitoring presidential elections, according to the chief envoy from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The current president, Alexander Lukashenko, 47, a former collective farm director, has ruled Belarus since 1994, though he has come under fire from the West for a poor record on human rights and press freedom.
But he is admired by many at home for his popular touch and maintaining salaries and pensions.
He says he will continue the policies he has followed for the past seven years when he is re-elected.
Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator," looks assured of victory after a campaign which his main challenger, trade unionist Viktor Goncharik, said had been marked by pressure from authorities.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 8:00 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Western diplomats and local authorities have played down the likelihood of any significant protests, but the opposition has called for a peaceful rally after the polls close. KGB spokesman Fyodor Kotov told Reuters news agency his army of plain clothes agents was ready for anything.
"The leaders of the so-called opposition have completely shown their faces by calling on people to come to the square and to disorder," he said late on Saturday.
"We are prepared for everything. We are ready for their attempts to seize power at any price... we don't expect anything of them. We hope that people will be sensible. The situation in the city is absolutely quiet and stable." About 2,000 domestic observers were banned by Belarus's central electoral commission after it began to doubt their legitimacy, according to Ambassador Hans-Georg Wiek, the head of the OSCE's advisory and monitoring group in Belarus.
To qualify to be an observer, the domestic monitor must be a member of a non-governmental organisation registered with the government.
Wiek conceded that the OSCE is not in a position to determine the accuracy of the elections officials' findings concerning the observers at this time.
The elections will be monitored by a team of some 5,000 domestic observers. The country has approximately 7,000 voting precincts.
The OSCE is concerned the exclusion of the group of 2,000 observers may be an 11th hour ploy to weaken the domestic observers' abilities to carry out a parallel vote count for the election results, and would be the most recent ploy to rig Sunday's vote.
Wiek said incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko is using police to intimidate political opponents and manipulating the media, which is under the exclusive control of the state.
The OSCE also takes issue with the absence of opposition representatives among election officials.
Lukashenko has been accused of using a presidential death squad to squash political opponents. The U.S. State Department has called the allegations of two such accusers "detailed and credible." Lukashenko told CNN the allegations are "dirt and lies."
Meanwhile, the president's main competitor in the elections, opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik, said the president is rigging the vote. Goncharik said he would not recognise the results of the elections unless he wins.
Shadow over Belarus poll
September 7, 2001
Lukashenko claims parliamentary poll win
October 16, 2000
Belarus National Assembly
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