Belarusians voted in parliamentary polls on Sunday with opposition observers claiming mass violations despite strongman President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to reach out to the West.
Lukashenko -- who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.
Voters were on Sunday electing the 110 MPs of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber in what the opposition calls a rubber-stamp parliament.
Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.
An election monitoring campaign organised by opposition parties reported 524 violations by the afternoon, mostly officials inflating voter numbers at polling stations as compared to observers' counts.
Rights activists monitoring the vote complained observers were thrown out, banned from taking photographs and had their view blocked.
Alaksej Janukevich, deputy head of the Belarus National Front opposition party, told AFP he believed the authorities had chosen "the familiar scenario of falsifications".
According to the authorities, more than 35 percent of the 6.8 million electorate voted ahead of polling day through absentee ballots.
After casting his vote, Lukashenko told journalists "Of course I am concerned how the elections will be viewed in the West," but added: "I'm not accustomed to fret about this."
Confirming he will stand in presidential polls in summer 2020, he said: "If society doesn't like how the president organises this (vote), they can choose a fresh one next year. I won't cling on with my cold dead hands."
Such defiant rhetoric comes despite Lukashenko making renewed attempts to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.
He made a rare visit to western Europe this month, meeting Austrian leaders in Vienna and saying he wanted the European Union to be "an important political and business partner" for his country.
He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in August, saying a "new chapter" was opening in ties with Washington.
Lukashenko is looking to the West to take further steps after already lifting some sanctions imposed after a 2011 crackdown on protests.
However the strongman assured voters Sunday: "Under Lukashenko, no one will drag Belarus to the West."
He is also seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains in its sphere of influence.
The countries have formed a nominal "union", with close trade and military cooperation, but Lukashenko has opposed outright unification.
"Who the hell needs a union like that?" Lukashenko said Sunday, complaining Russia keeps "sneaking in new conditions."
EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the bloc was watching Sunday's election closely.
"Our standards when it comes to elections are very high," she told reporters in Brussels. "We expect nothing else when it comes to Belarus: fair transparent elections in line with international standards."
But there was little optimism among foreign observers for a more democratic vote.
"The campaign so far is low-key, with a limited number of events organised," the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, said in a report this month.
People did not expect polls to be "genuinely competitive" and "had little confidence in the process", the report added.
The OSCE was sending 400 observers to monitor the polls. It has not recognised any elections in Belarus since 1995 as free and fair.
Opposition parties complained they had had difficulty registering candidates and even observers.
"There is no question of expecting free and fair elections," said the opposition's Janukevich, as a dozen of his party's candidates had either been dropped or risked last-minute elimination.
The leader of another opposition party, Nikolai Kozlov of the United Civic Front, slammed the polls as utterly predictable.
"We already know, 99 percent, who will win in each district," he told AFP.
Political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that with ties with the West already improving, authorities saw little reason to loosen their grip.
"The problems of democracy and human rights... have faded into the background," he said.
"For the authorities, there is more to lose than to gain from an opposition election campaign."