While voters in Belarus were expected yesterday to reelect their authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, questions swirled about both the fairness of the election and the nature of Western assistance to pro-democracy forces.
On the eve of the vote, the Belarussian government banned 2,000 of 7,000 local election observers. Analysts say a controversial early-balloting system - some polling stations in yesterday's election actually opened on Tuesday - was designed to seal a first-round victory for the Belarus leader.
Whatever the outcome, the election is revealing a remarkably high level of US and Western involvement on the side of pro-democracy activists, which has embroiled the American ambassador and senior Western officials in a political firestorm.
Although regime opponents say they are pleased to have help in building civil society in the former Soviet republic - and, by extension, in their attempt to oust the man often called the "last dictator in Europe" - the lifeline of cash and moral support has bolstered Lukashenko's claim that he is a target of Cold War-style meddling.
While it is against US law to fund foreign political parties, American and European grant money is flowing to an array of pro-democracy and civil society groups, newspapers, and political awareness campaigns.
"It would be dark, scary and awful without that [US] money," says Anatoly Gulayev, deputy editor of the independent newspaper "Den," and vice president of the Belarussian journalists' union. "Very few [opposition] newspapers live without that help. We should admit it and be grateful for it."
"What we want to see is a change in the system," US Ambassador Michael Kozak said in an interview. "If Lukashenko opened the system so there is a free press and a free and fair election, we would accept his government as legitimate."
Lukashenko says he is under personal attack, and that the US has crossed a fine line of intervention - a view shared even by some opponents and Western analysts.
"We will not have Americans telling us what to do... We cannot be brought to our knees," Lukashenko told supporters last week. He accused the US and the West of "sleazy election techniques," and read a list of opposition leaders he claimed had been paid by the US Embassy in Minsk to "remove" him.
Lukashenko has also accused the chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Hans-Georg Wieck - a former West German intelligence chief, who by all accounts played a critical role uniting opposition parties behind one candidate - of being the opposition's "chief of staff."
The president has said he will expel both men from Belarus after the election.
Washington spent $24 million in Belarus last year, and US officials say the figure is slightly higher this year. That amounts to a small fortune in this impoverished nation wedged between NATO's eastern flank and Russia.
"To me, [the aid] is nothing to be embarrassed about if you say you want to develop an open, civil society," Ambassador Kozak says. "We made no secret about it."
But critics say that, even if the opposition were to win Sunday's vote, they could have a hard time shaking a "Made in the USA" label. Others argue that the US has overplayed its hand, and that the opposition may see more profit in staying out of power.
"[The US] really helped the opposition financially so much, that the opposition has gone crazy," says Alexander Feduta, an independent journalist and former Lukashenko insider who is a fierce critic of the regime. "Name me any other country where you get paid for being in the opposition."
Portions of grant money have been stolen and are often misused, he says, and have had little real impact: "Revolution is not done that way."
While political parties may not officially receive Western cash, the line often blurs in Belarus, a country of just 10 million with a nascent pro-democracy movement.
"Lukashenko is right that [outside money] flows into politics," says Paulyuk Bykowski, a political writer for the weekly Belarussian Market newspaper. Of the 19 or so registered opposition parties, "almost every one has 10 to 20 non-governmental organizations [eligible for outside cash]."
Using American money to help put down democratic roots here should not be tainted by Cold War memories of superpower meddling, says Thomas Carothers, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The US is helping facilitate [opponents] who are already there," Mr. Carothers says. "If you have an election and there are some gray areas where you can help out, this is a different ballgame from the cold war."
Some comparisons are being made between Belarus and Serbia - where indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power last year, in part because of intense US support for pro-democracy activists. A meeting at the State Department in February brought together officials responsible for Serbia and Belarus, to see what lessons from Belgrade might apply in Minsk.
Mr. Kozak's work on tough political nuts began in Nicaragua - preparing for the April 1990 elections that booted the Sandinistas from power, he is careful to say, and not with the CIA-backed Contra guerrillas. As an assistant secretary of State and later presidential envoy, he offered an exit deal to Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1988, and most recently was US envoy to Cuba.
A recent letter to The Guardian newspaper in London, from an Oxford University lecturer, complained about the "current role of so many veterans of the dirty wars of Latin America." Kozak was singled out as "an expert in ensuring Washington's favored candidate wins elections."
In a rare move for any US envoy, Kozak wrote a response, saying, "Our objective and to some degree methodology are the same."
Kozak's letter focused on his work on the Nicaragua elections. But a follow-up story in The Times of London last week about Kozak's "unusual admission" focused on the illegal support for the Contras, and was headlined: "US adopts 'Contras policy' in communist Belarus." Referring to that article, the Belarus foreign minister accused Kozak of giving "covert support" to the opposition.
Consequently, beneficiaries of US help here are closemouthed about the extent of that aid. Newspapers, for example, receive money for items from new computers and telephones, to paying for rent and bigger print runs.
Some raise questions about why it appears that marginally influential groups receive cash, while opposition parties themselves seem to go wanting. "Obviously, we are thankful to the Americans... But I know for sure that the budget for [opposition leader Vladimir] Goncharik is meager," says Den deputy editor Gulayev, whose paper was raided twice in July.
The focus, he says, should be on major newspapers and concrete help instead of seminars on "how we should live " and "small-time newsletters that remain piled in closets."