2 Belarusian candidates choose to oppose Lukashenko by sitting out presidential election

Two prominent potential candidates in Belarus' presidential election are pulling out, alleging that a free and fair vote is impossible under longtime authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Anatoly Lebedko and Sergei Kalyakin were among eight aspirants, including Lukashenko, who were authorized to try to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot for the Oct. 11 vote. But they've decided not to submit their signatures. The central Elections Commission will announce on Sept. 10 who qualifies to run in the vote.

Lukashenko, widely characterized in the West as Europe's last dictator, has run the former Soviet republic since 1994, cracking down on any opposition and retaining a largely centralized Soviet-style economy in this nation of nearly 10 million. Although he has allowed opposition candidates to run in presidential elections, none of the ballots have been recognized in the West as free or fair. Most of the candidates who opposed him in 2010 were arrested soon after the polls closed.

As Belarus' economy deteriorates sharply and neighboring Russia appears increasingly intimidating, Lukashenko has made brief attempts to improve ties with the West. Last week he ordered the release of all the country's political prisoners, including Nikolai Statkevich, a candidate in the last presidential election who had been imprisoned since then.

A wide field of candidates for president could bolster Lukashenko's image-building. Lebedko, however, regards any changes as only cosmetic.

"When you beat people with truncheons for 20 years and then give them two months of some kind of freedom, you don't expect that he's suddenly becoming a European who understands what human rights are," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Miracles do not happen."

Rather than risk adding a sheen of legitimacy to the presidential vote, Lebedko said he and Kalyakin intend to capitalize on a "window of opportunity" under which opposition figures can meet with citizens and hold rallies until Sept. 10.

"We've set ourselves the tasks of increasing the number of participants in the political process and gathering evidence that these are not free elections," he said.

Statkevich, who while still in prison had sought to run in the Oct. 11 election but was rejected, said he supports the strategy of opposition by withdrawal. He said those running against Lukashenko are just "artificial candidates."

"I intend to oppose this and unify with those colleagues from the democratic forces who don't juggle in the electoral circus of Lukashenko," he said.