Minsk (AFP) - Two opposition candidates have been elected to parliament in ex-Soviet Belarus, the first time since 2008 that critics of strongman president Alexander Lukashenko have made it into the rubber-stamp legislature.
The election of the tiny opposition contingent comes as Lukashenko, once dubbed by the US as Europe's last dictator, tries to burnish his image further with the West after the EU dropped sanctions against Belarus earlier this year.
Anna Kanapatskaya of the opposition United Civil Party and Alena Anisim of the Belarusian Language Society both won spots in Sunday's nationwide vote, the country's election commission said.
The rest of the 110 deputies, whose victories were announced by the commission late Sunday, are considered close to the authorities.
"The victory by Anna Kanapatskaya is symbolic, it shows that when the vote count is honest, the opposition can win," said United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko, a key opposition figure who spent several months in jail after standing in presidential elections in 2010.
The opposition fielded some 200 candidates in Sunday's polls. Critics insisted that despite the minute headway they had made, a vote held under Lukashenko's total domination could never be fair.
"We won't change our view of this campaign. There are no free elections in Belarus," Lebedko said.
International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that while the vote had gone smoothly, "systematic shortcomings" meant that political rights were restricted and media coverage skewed.
"It remains clear that Belarus still has some way to go to fulfil its democratic commitments," Kent Harstedt, head of the OSCE observer mission, said in a statement.
Most of the MPs elected in Belarus, a landlocked country wedged between Russia and the EU that has been ruled with an iron fist by Lukashenko since 1994, are traditionally state officials or functionaries from state-owned firms.
The main opposition parties did not take part in the last parliamentary elections in 2012, which international observers said had been neither free nor fair.
Kanapatskaya ran for office in the capital Minsk, where she competed against a former presidential challenger, Tatyana Korotkevich, and a head of the Minsk train station.
After authorities freed some prominent political prisoners, the European Union in February lifted the bulk of economic sanctions imposed in 2011 over Lukashenko's brutal crackdown on opponents.
Lukashenko was re-elected by a landslide in 2015 for a fifth term.