Belarus votes as Lukashenko aims to extend 21-year rule

Belarus on Sunday kicked-off its fifth presidential election in 21 years since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Minsk: Belarussians began voting on Sunday in an election that is likely to see authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claim a fifth term, with the EU possibly lifting sanctions against him if the polls take place without incident.

Lukashenko, 61, a swaggering former collective farm director once called Europe's last dictator by Washington, has led the landlocked eastern European country closely allied to Russia since 1994.

While imposing Soviet-style economic controls and jailing opponents, Lukashenko enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regime's durability, now making him Europe's longest-serving leader.

The result of the polls are in little doubt, particularly as the authorities have mustered a massive early vote, accounting for at least 36 per cent of the electorate, according to the country's electoral commission.

Liudmila Vauchok, a six-time Paralympic medallist in cross-country skiing and rowing, said she voted for Lukashenko, saying he had brought "reliability and calm" to the country.

"Whatever happens, Belarus is flourishing," Vauchok, who came to the polling station in her wheelchair with her three-year-old daughter, told AFP. "Our system is established. I wouldn't like to be in the president's place as things are very complicated now. The main thing is for there not to be a war."

Other voters expressed similar reasons to support Lukashenko.

"He has his own opinion and he does not bend to anyone's will, he protects the interests of his people," said retired university teacher Valentina Artyomovna as she bought pastries from her polling station's buffet, part of the authorities' attempt to create a "holiday atmosphere" for election day.

The Belarussian president is propped up by Russia, which supplies the country of 9.5 million with cut-price energy, valuing Belarus as an ally and buffer against NATO member states such as Poland.

But Lukashenko has been known at times to publicly oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two leaders are currently locked in a spat over whether Russia can open an air base in Belarus as Moscow flexes its military might.

Facing the West, Lukashenko's incarceration of Belarussian political opponents has led to his international isolation and the imposition of Western sanctions on the country's officials following disputed polls in 2010.

The European Union however is ready to suspend sanctions against Lukashenko after the surprise release in August of the country's last political prisoners, European sources told AFP on Friday.

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