Lawmakers in the Belarusian National Assembly have overwhelmingly approved a mid-December date for the country's presidential election, scheduling the polling nearly four months ahead of when strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's third term is due to expire.
Many had initially expected the vote to be held in January or early February. By law, the vote must be held no later than February 6, two months before the end of Lukashenka's current term.
But parliament member Vasil Baikou, presenting the election bill during an extraordinary session on September 14, said December 19 was the "most optimal" date for the vote and his fellow legislators agreed.
"The commission's goal was to ensure maximum citizen participation in the election and hold the election at a time convenient for the voters," Baikou said. "Holding the election before the end of this year, without losing time on an electoral process, will enable [the elected president] to begin solving social and economic tasks for the coming year and the next five-year period immediately starting from the beginning of 2011."
The earlier election date may be an attempt by Lukashenka, who is expected to run for a fourth term, to limit the potential momentum of rival candidates.
The authoritarian Lukashenka has held office since 1994, and has rarely faced a serious political challenge in his multiple reelection bids. But economic setbacks and mounting animus from Moscow have left the Belarusian leader in a position of greater-than-usual vulnerability.
In recent years, Lukashenka has sporadically courted nontraditional partners, including the West, in a bid to counterbalance Russia's historic dominance.
His actions have put him increasingly at odds with Moscow, which frequently uses its monopoly over energy supplies and its continued subsidies of the Belarusian economy to pressure Minsk in times of discord.
In June, Russia temporarily reduced natural-gas supplies to Belarus amid a season of disputes over a proposed customs union and Minsk's offer of refuge to the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiev, a decision that Moscow opposed.
In late August, Russia expressed outrage when assailants threw two Molotov cocktails into the compound of the Russian Embassy in Minsk. And a dispute has long simmered over Belarus's unwillingness to follow Moscow in formally recognizing Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The rising enmity has prompted suggestions the Kremlin may once again seek to renegotiate the price of its energy sales to Belarus in January, at a time when bracing winter temperatures can amplify its powers of persuasion.
In moving the elections forward, Lukashenka may have been seeking to preempt the damage that a hike in energy prices, and the resulting spike in utility costs, could do to his reelection bid.
The move also allows the Belarusian leader to make good on a populist promise to raise average salaries to $500 -- from under $430 -- a promise he might not be able to honor following a Russian pricing spike.
Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, the head of the Tell the Truth civic campaign and a likely presidential candidate, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that a wave of impending economic troubles made the December election date practically inevitable.
"So to hold an election and wage a political campaign under such inauspicious economic conditions would be suicidal for the government, for Lukashenka," Nyaklyaeu said. "That's why the election will take place prior to the start of the new year -- while the situation is still more or less acceptable, while there are still available funds to pay off factory workers, pensioners, and all other state employees."
Window Of Opportunity?
Many observers have suggested the Kremlin is eager to see Lukashenka finally removed from his post and is openly orchestrating his ouster. Russia's NTV channel in July broadcast a highly critical documentary on Lukashenka. The program, titled "The Godfather," focused on several high-profile disappearances in Belarus during Lukashenka's presidency in the 1990s.
This week, a video posted on YouTube purported to document an anonymous former employee of the Russian security forces claiming Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is actively planning Lukashenka's assassination.
A leaflet in Belarus telling the public that NTV's "The Godfather" is "must see" TV.
The Kremlin has denounced the clip as nonsense; even so, by shortening the campaign season, Lukashenka may also be looking to limit the impact of Russian propaganda, real or imagined. Perhaps hedging his bets, Lukashenka today pledged his support and loyalty to Moscow in a meeting with Nikolai Bordyuzha, the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization that binds Belarus and five other post-Soviet countries with Russia.
With the elections now scheduled, attention will turn to the opposition, to see which candidates are ultimately put forward as Lukashenka's rivals for the race.
Belarusian opposition leaders have indicated they hope to coordinate efforts during the upcoming presidential campaign, but they have failed to come up with a single opposition candidate.
Former presidential contender Alyaksandr Milinkevich, arguably the country's best-known opposition politician, has suggested he might not run in the upcoming vote, despite earlier pledges that he would. Milinkevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service after the parliamentary vote that he would make a final decision by the end of this week.
But as many as 10 others have expressed their initial intention to run against Lukashenka. In addition to Nyaklyaeu, they include Syarhey Haidukevich, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party; Yaroslav Romanchuk, deputy chair of the opposition United Civil Party; and Viktar Tsyareshchanka, chairman of the country's small-business association.
Another likely candidate is Andrey Sannikau, who heads the European Belarus movement. Sannikau's standing may gain moral weight from his close association with Aleh Byabenin, the opposition journalist who was found hanged in his country home earlier this month.
Prosecutors initially called Byabenin's death a suicide but have since acknowledged the journalist might have been murdered. Byabenin's death has galvanized the country's opposition activists and prompted angry calls by the West for an open investigation.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Sannikau criticized the government for keeping the public guessing for so long about the election date.
But he said that regardless of when the elections were held, they would be an opportunity for voters to put the country on a fresh path with its neighbors and the world.
"Everything surrounding this date -- the secrets, the rumors -- tells you something about the situation we're in," Sannikau said. "The government can't even candidly and conscientiously tell the people when the election will be held, how it will be held, etc."
He speculated that the vote was set before the new year because "it's evident that relations with everybody -- Russia, Europe -- are complicated, and will grow even more complicated for Lukashenka."
"That's why it's necessary to change this government," Sannikau said. "I'm ready for the election and the [announced] date doesn't change any of my plans."
Potential presidential hopefuls must now collect 100,000 signatures to formally establish their candidacy. That process begins on September 30, once the candidate groups tasked with collecting the signatures have themselves been registered.
Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the chair of Belarus's Central Election Commission, said today that international observers would be invited to monitor the elections.
Observers denounced the results of the country's last presidential elections in 2006, saying the vote had been rigged. Lukashenka officially won 83 percent of the vote in that contest.
written by Daisy Sindelar based on RFE/RL and agency reports