Europeans urge fair election in Belarus, criticize run-up

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BERLIN (AP) — Top European officials urged Belarusian authorities on Friday to ensure a free and fair presidential election this weekend and denounced “unacceptable” restrictions ahead of the vote.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation with an iron fist for 26 years, is seeking a sixth term in Sunday’s election. It comes as the 65-year-old leader faces a surge in opposition protests fueled by the worsening economy and the government’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Election officials have already barred Lukashenko’s two main challengers from running, but remaining candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has managed to unite the fragmented opposition. Lukashenko has warned that authorities won’t allow any unsanctioned demonstrations following the election on Sunday.

“The peaceful mobilization of (Belarusian) society has been met so far with unacceptable further restrictions on freedoms of media and assembly, as well as with detentions of peaceful protesters, domestic observers, journalists and activists,” the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said. “The country’s sovereignty and independence can only be strengthened by peaceful, free and fair elections.”

The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland voiced concern in a separate statement that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and others weren’t invited to observe the election.

“We urge Belarusian authorities to conduct the upcoming presidential election in a free and fair manner, including ensuring independent monitoring by local observers,” they said. “We have taken note of worrying reports of electoral irregularities during early voting.”

Both statements urged Belarusian authorities to release all prisoners detained on political grounds.

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