MINSK, Belarus (AP) — About 300 opposition supporters rallied Thursday in the Belarusian capital calling for a boycott of next month's presidential vote.
President Alexander Lukashenko, in office for more than two decades, appears set to easily extend his rule in the Oct. 11 election.
Belarus' election commission on Thursday registered leaders of two pro-government parties and an obscure opposition activist to compete with Lukashenko, who will run for the fifth straight time. Leading opposition figures called for boycotting the vote they denounced as a farce.
Lukashenko, widely described in the West as Europe's last dictator, has run the former Soviet republic since 1994, cracking down on any opposition and retaining a largely centralized Soviet-style economy in the nation of 10 million people. Most of the candidates who opposed him in 2010 were arrested soon after the polls closed.
The U.S. and the European Union have criticized past Belarusian elections as shams and denounced Lukashenko's crackdown on political freedoms and human rights, but they have toned down their criticism recently after Lukashenko released political prisoners in a bid to improve ties with the West.
Nikolai Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 vote and was only released from prison last month, denounced the election as a "circus."
Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst, said Lukashenko will likely observe decorum this time, avoiding crackdowns while flirting with the West.
"Lukashenko can hold this election in a decent way, without beating people over the head," Klaskovsky said. "And it could be enough for the West to normalize ties."
Lukashenko held the prospect of closer ties with the West to wrest concessions from his main ally and sponsor, Russia. Moscow, whose relations with the West have been shattered by the Ukrainian crisis, has continued to subsidize the Belarusian economy with cheap energy and other benefits.