Why Europe's 'last dictator' might win

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko seeks a third term in Sunday's election.

In this small, snow-blanketed industrial town, opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich drew applause from a crowd of about 700 with a stinging critique of the 12-year rule of Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. He pledged to end the reign of "fear, humiliation, and lies" if he is elected on March 19.

A few police officers watched impassively from the back row, but no one interfered as townspeople asked questions and stepped forward to shake hands with Lukashenko's leading rival.

It's a crucial election in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million the State Department has described as "the last outpost of tyranny in Europe." Mr. Lukashenko, who changed the Constitution two years ago to permit himself to run for a third term, insists he is playing by democratic rules, competing openly and fairly against three serious contenders. Some events, like the Zhodino meeting, seem to back him up.

But Mr. Milinkevich, who represents a coalition of 10 opposition parties, says the election is a "total farce" and has pledged to bring thousands of supporters into the streets of Minsk, the capital city, Sunday to protest despite a government ban on election-day demonstrations.

"We're against revolution, but we have the right to express ourselves peacefully," he says. "We expect provocations [from the authorities], perhaps even a bomb. Sometimes people have to give their lives for freedom, but I don't want anyone to be killed. I've warned the authorities that they will be responsible for what happens."

Crackdown on opposition

Nearly 300 of Milinkevich's supporters have been arrested in the past month, many sentenced to 15-day prison terms for such offenses as "organizing unsanctioned campaign events." Dozens of independent newspapers have been closed, nongovernmental organizations shuttered, and most opposition rallies declared illegal.

"Lukashenko allows some democratic window-dressing because he needs to demonstrate his legitimacy to the world," says Oleg Manaev, an independent sociologist in Minsk. "But all independent media, politicians and scholars in Belarus are under intense pressure. We face a real war against us."

In a report last week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed Belarus authorities for the violent arrest of an opposition presidential candidate, Alexander Kazulin, for trying to hold an impromptu press conference.

Other violations included "harassment of campaign workers by the police and limited space provided for campaign material and events," and the March 3 seizure of the entire print run of the nonstate newspaper Narodnaya Volya. On Wednesday, police detained Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party and a key member of Milinkevich's coalition, and charged him with swearing in public and resisting arrest.

'Protesting = terrorism'

The head of Belarus's KGB security service, Stepan Sukhorenko, said Thursday that any protesters on election day will be charged with terrorism. "We are in no way interfering with the rights of candidates, but we are obliged to state that an attempt to seize power by force is being prepared in the country under cover of the elections," he told a Minsk press conference.

Authorities and the opposition are equally mindful of the recent color-coded revolutions in the region, particularly in Ukraine. In late 2004, thousands of Ukrainians packed Kiev's central square to protest a rigged election, ultimately forcing out the original winner.

About 500 foreign observers will be on hand for the Belarus election Sunday, mostly from the OSCE. EU monitors had planned to come, but their visa requests were denied. Nikolai Lozovik, secretary of Belarus' Central Election Commission, says that foreign observers - who have not certified any Lukashenko-era election as free or fair - have made up their minds in advance. "The West doesn't like Lukashenko, so if he wins they'll take it negatively. It's politics that governs their assessments, not legal considerations."

But politics may also be interfering with the election process. In a country where 80 percent of the economy is owned by the state, opportunities for voter coercion seem to abound. "In our factory the managers say if you want to go on working, you'd better vote for Lukashenko," says Anatoly, a worker at Zhodino's sprawling BelAZ heavy equipment factory, who declined to give his full name. "It's the same dictatorship we had in Soviet times."

Lukashenko genuinely popular

Nevertheless, Lukashenko appears genuinely popular and some experts say he would probably win a fair election. A January Gallup poll gave Lukashenko 55 percent support, compared to Milinkevich's 17 percent.

A former collective farm chairman, Lukashenko is widely credited with restoring Belarus's shattered post-Soviet economy through tough state control and neo-communist economic planning.

A 2005 World Bank report judged that "economic growth in Belarus has been genuine and robust," and the benefits have been widely shared among the population. Official unemployment stands at less than 2 percent, poverty has fallen, and the average monthly income is around $200 - better than in many former USSR republics, including Ukraine.

Moscow's role behind the scenes

But experts attribute Belarus's economic success to drastically subsidized energy from Russia and favored access to the Russian market for Belarus' industrial products. "The key to power in Belarus lies in Moscow," which subsidizes its only European ally by as much as $8 billion annually, says Mr. Suzdaltsev. "Everything here runs on Russian gas, which Belarus gets at one-fifth the world market price."

However, with Lukashenko receiving 94 percent of TV election coverage, according to the OSCE, voters had few opportunities to hear viewpoints that challenged the government's presentation of the facts.

"Under Lukashenko, things have gotten better, and it's good enough for me," says Ivan Kniga, a railroad mechanic. "Why should we vote for someone new?"

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