Updated at 18:21,18-06-2018

Belarus poll: EU lifts sanctions on Lukashenko Europes last dictator

Agence France-Presse

Despite concerns about Alexander Lukashenkos victory with 83.5% of the vote, EU ministers suspend sanctions for four months

The European Union has agreed to suspend sanctions against Belarus after president Alexander Lukashenko won a fifth term, even though observers said the poll was flawed.

Once dubbed Europes last dictator by the US, Lukashenko, 61, won a fifth consecutive term on Sunday, picking up 83.5% of the vote, according to official figures.

EU foreign ministers have agreed to suspend sanctions for four months, after the elections passed off without incident, Frances European affairs minister Harlem Desir told reporters after a meeting in Luxembourg.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there appeared to have been less repression than in past elections, but Washington voiced disappointment, saying the ballot fell significantly short of the countrys commitment to free and fair polls.

Ahead of the vote EU diplomats had said Brussels was ready to reconsider the sanctions, which are set to expire on 31 October, provided the polls passed off in an acceptable climate.

But observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said earlier on Monday the ballots integrity had been undermined by significant problems, especially during the counting of the votes.

It is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments, said Kent Harstedt, head of the OSCE mission.

In the capital Minsk, the streets were calm on Monday evening after Lukashenko warned the opposition against staging protests over his re-election.

A shrewd operator who has played Brussels against Moscow, Lukashenko has raised his standing with the EU by seeking to distance his former Soviet nation from Russia.

Current EU sanctions imposed for rights abuses include travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and around 170 other individuals and 14 groups.

Some of the other sanctions against his regime date back to 2004.

Russia, which props up Lukashenkos regime financially, has been warily eyeing the presidents attempts at rapprochement with the West.

Days before the start of Moscows bombing campaign in Syria in late September, Russian president Vladimir Putin reiterated his interest in setting up an air base in Belarus.

Putin, whose already difficult ties with the west have been further complicated by the air strikes, congratulated Lukashenko in a phone call Monday and expressed readiness to ramp up ties.

The two are expected to discuss the airbase at a meeting in Kazakhstan this week.

While pilloried by rights defenders, Belaruss moustachioed leader of 21 years enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regimes durability.

He is believed to be grooming his 11-year-old son Kolya as his successor.

In an attempt to assuage western criticism, he released six jailed opposition leaders ahead of the election. He also won some praise for hosting Ukraine peace talks earlier this year.

Leaders of the embattled opposition had urged Brussels not to lift sanctions and warned they would not recognise the results of the poll, pointing to what they said was widespread fraud.

If they are together with this murderer, this criminal, then democracy is just words, said Mikola Statkevich, who was among those released from jail ahead of the vote.

Independent Belarussian observers also slammed the polls, saying a record 36% of the voters had cast their ballots during early voting.

Belarus lacks basic conditions to conduct fair elections, said opposition politician Sergei Kalyakin.

The newly-crowned winner of the 2015 Nobel literature prize, Svetlana Alexievich, last week warned Europe to beware of Lukashenko, describing his regime as a soft dictatorship.

In power since 1994, Lukashenko unleashed a crackdown on the opposition after thousands took to the streets to protest his disputed re-election in December 2010.

Five years later, the veteran leader ran against three virtual unknowns, with opposition leaders barred from standing in Sundays polls. His nearest rival, Tatiana Korotkevich, mustered just 4.42% of the ballot.

The result is the highest ever for Lukashenko, whose government worked hard to ensure an official turnout of over 87%.

Lukashenko won but mass protests and arrests of the opposition did not take place this time, Alexander Klaskovsky, an analyst with Belapan think tank, told AFP.

It would be enough, in these conditions, for minimal progress in order for the normalisation of ties with the United States and EU to continue.

While Lukashenko allowed an unauthorised opposition rally in the capital to go ahead without police intervention on Saturday, he warned he would not tolerate such protests after the vote.

You know what will happen, he said.