updated 9/28/2008 2:00:06 PM ET 2008-09-28T18:00:06

Belarusians voted Sunday in parliamentary elections that opposition leaders insisted were already rigged, despite promises by the country's authoritarian leader that international voting standards would be followed.

Yet the fact that a count could be falsified highlighted a change in a country that has been called Europe's last dictatorship — in national elections four years ago, the opposition wasn't even allowed to run.

A total of 263 candidates, including 70 from the opposition, were competing in Sunday's elections for 110 parliamentary seats.

As soon as the polls closed, a few hundred opposition supporters turned out on the central square of the capital to protest the vote. No police were visible.

"We are tired of living in fear, we are tired of repression," said Natalya Kurilovich, 34. "I'm tired of (President Alexander) Lukashenko stealing votes. I want a European future for my children."

Hundreds of election monitors
Lukashenko said the vote would be conducted in strict accordance with international guidelines, and he welcomed more than 400 election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"It will be very difficult for the observers not to recognize these elections," Lukashenko said after casting his ballot Sunday.

Yet opposition members complained that a system of early voting meant observers would have difficulty assessing the elections. Early voting began Tuesday, and more than 25 percent of about 7 million eligible voters had cast ballots before Sunday, the Central Election Commission said. It was unclear how many turned out on election day. An hour before polls closed, turnout had reached 67 percent.

"You can't call it a real election when students, soldiers and workers are forced to vote early and when nobody is guarding the ballot boxes for five nights," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party.

In early voting, voters can be easily intimidated. It also makes it difficult to match the number of votes cast with the number of voters who show up at a given polling station, making ballot stuffing easier. In past elections, this was one of the methods international observers said was used to rig the vote.

Opposition leaders also are protesting their exclusion from the vote count.

Efforts to appease critics
However, Lukashenko — an open admirer of the Soviet Union who has run Belarus with a heavy hand since 1994 — has made some efforts to appease critics from abroad, including freeing several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West.

The moves apparently reflect concerns about Belarus' over-reliance on neighboring Russia.

Russia has begun scaling back the preferential energy deals that have helped keep the Belarusian economy afloat. While the two countries maintain close ties, they have clashed recently over energy prices, and Lukashenko's relations with Russia's powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have been tense.

Tensions have increased since last month's war between Russia and Georgia. Belarus has not followed Russia in recognizing Georgia's two separatist republics as independent nations.

The United States and European Union say they are watching Sunday's election for further signs that Lukashenko is serious about allowing more political competition.

"European public opinion has placed high hopes in this election and is expecting positive results," said Ann-Marie Lizin, coordinator of the OSCE observers.

The U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Belarus to try to force Lukashenko to stop repressing the opposition, and have indicated they will review the sanctions after the election. The U.S. lifted some of its sanctions after the political prisoners were freed last month.

Voting appears orderly
Alexander Kozulin, a leading opposition member who was among those released, said just because the government has stopped jailing its opponents does not mean the election was conducted fairly. But the West should continue talking to the Belarusian government and "teach it how things are done in the civilized world," he said after casting his ballot.

Voting in the capital appeared orderly Sunday.

"Belarus has needed to change for a long time, within the country and in relations with the world," said Irina Shulevskaya, a 34-year-old teacher.

But many Belarusians, particularly the elderly, credit Lukashenko as a champion of stability who has avoided major economic calamity following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

"Lukashenko for 14 years has shown that he is a people's president, and we won't allow the opposition to interfere," 84-year-old Grigory Gurevich said, proudly displaying his military medals as he voted.

The OSCE observers will give their assessment of whether the election was free and fair on Monday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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