Reuters International

General view shows the government and parliament headquarters at Independence square in Minsk, Belarus February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - The election in Belarus of lawmakers critical of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has split pro-democracy activists in the ex-Soviet republic once dubbed Europe's last dictatorship.

Many argue that the appointments are a token gesture to the West from Lukashenko aimed at improving ties at a time of economic crisis and strained relations with main ally, Russia. Others say it offers a small chance for the beleaguered opposition to pull itself out of the shadows.

On Sept. 11, Anna Kanopatskaya, a little-known member of the pro-Western United Civil Party, won a place in parliament - the first time a member of an opposition party has won a seat in 20 years. Independent candidate Alena Anisim, who has links to the opposition, was also elected.

Several senior opposition figures, including Nikolai Statkevich who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential race, said the pair should turn down the seats in protest at the election process.

Foreign observers said the election was broadly undemocratic, citing falsifications of voter turnout and lack of transparency with early vote counting.

"It's a matter of conscience. They have been appointed, like all the others. We don't have elected MPs," said Statkevich, who was imprisoned for nearly five years for organising opposition protests.

But Kanopatskaya, who has been a member of her party since 1994, said it would be unwise to turn down the opportunity to improve the visibility of the opposition movement.

"We have been in the shadows too long. If this chance has fallen into our laps, we need to use it," she told Reuters, describing her shock when she heard she had won the seat.

The opposition in Belarus is made up of about a dozen parties and groups that have struggled to popularise their cause in the face of government repression. They say they have thousands of supporters, but in recent years rallies have attracted only a few dozen protesters.

Lukashenko has run Belarus along Soviet-style command lines since 1994 and the powers of the Belarussian parliament are limited by the constitution. Its members are government officials, managers of state firms and presidential allies, but as a lawmaker Kanopatskaya will have a legal platform from which to voice dissent.

"For the opposition this is a success. It's clear that they (Kanopatskaya and Anisim) were appointed, but this is a chance to return to the political system," said political analyst Aleksandr Klaskovsky.

"The election showed that the opposition can be a player, but only if it plays."

OVERTURES TO THE WEST

Kanopatskaya, 39, is the director of a law firm and the daughter of Belarus's first millionaire businessman, who was a close friend of former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir. Chigir resigned in 1996 in protest at Lukashenko's move to consolidate power.

In the intervening years, Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, kept critics on a tight rein and Belarus in close alliance with Russia, benefiting from cheap gas and oil, loans and a large market for exports.

However, some cracks appeared in the relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Since then Minsk has made overtures to the West, seeking improved trade ties and foreign loans and investment to shore up its economy, which contracted 3.9 percent in 2015 partly due to contagion from a protracted recession in Russia.

Granting the opposition some political representation is a calculated move from Lukashenko to suggest he is heeding Western calls for democracy, said Vladimir Neklyayev, who also ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 election.

"Two or three opposition lawmakers were the conditions of the West ... Lukashenko has rolled over for the West," he said.

The election results follow the release of political prisoners last August, long-demanded by the West. Lukashenko's role in hosting Ukraine-Russia peace talks also eased international criticism of the veteran leader.

The European Union ended five years of sanctions against Belarus in February. The United States has also relaxed some of its restrictions on Minsk and said the authorities' handling of the lastest election would be a factor in an upcoming review of sanctions.

While foreign observers have welcomed the election of opposition candidates, they made clear Belarus still has a long way to go in democratic terms.

"Citizen's right to a free and fair election continued to be abused in the grip of entrenched repressive laws and institutions," said Miklos Haraszti, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.

Kanopatskaya's appointment is a "lipstick measure on a face of violations," he said.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Anna Willard)

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