WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior European official on Friday urged the government of the ex-Soviet state of Belarus to move forward with democratic reforms after a parliamentary election where Western observers noted minor progress.
Belarus held an election in September in which two opposition figures won parliament seats, the first to do so in 20 years. The results reflected efforts by the longtime authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, to improve ties with the West amid economic problems and concerns about Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Kent Harstedt, head of an election observer mission with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that while the election did not meet international standards, observers noted more cooperation on the part of Belarusian authorities than in previous years.
"It's very clear. They didn't live up to international standards, it wasn't free and fair elections the way we define it," Harstedt said at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. But, he added, "We have felt that they want to be engaged in a way we haven't seen before."
With the economy in trouble, Belarus is seeking a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The government also hopes to attract Western investment to its Soviet-style command economy. Minsk has also felt unease following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. Belarus has helped mediate the conflict by hosting international negotiations meant to produce a peace deal.
The economic and geopolitical concerns have prompted Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, to seek a rapprochement with the West. Belarus released all political prisoners last year, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions. The U.S. also suspended sanctions against some Belarusian enterprises.
Harstedt urged the government to continue liberalization reforms.
"If Belarus is not seizing this opportunity that is there for them at this time, I think they will be deceiving themselves," he said. "Security, (the) economy, human rights, civil society and democracy, freedom of speech — all of them are interlinked with each other. So I think that Belarus (has) an opportunity at a time where developments in so many places are going backwards. I think they have an opportunity to move forward."
Speaking at the same event, Pavel Shidlovsky, charge d'affaires at the Belarusian Embassy in Washington, said his country will continue efforts to improve ties with the United States and vowed to follow the OSCE's recommendations on elections.
"We are continuing the process of normalization of relations with the U.S. and with Europe," Shidlovsky said. "Our authorities have made every effort to ensure a democratic and transparent election process."