by Tom Washington
Few outside observers believe that the Belarusian presidential elections are anything more than a one-horse race - but Russia's Dmitry Medvedev is doing his best to turn Alexander Lukashenko's procession into a political campaign.
The Russian president launched a scathing attack on his Minsk counterpart - once seen as a staunch Kremlin ally - as frustration builds with the junior partner of the so-called Union State.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the main sticking points, with Lukashenko dithering over recognizing the breakaway republics as he tried to wangle hand-outs from Europe and Russia."This issue has become a constant object of political bargaining," Medvedev railed online. "But Russia does not trade its principles. Such behavior is dishonest and partners do not behave like that."
A done deal
Medvedev's intervention is unlikely to effect December's election - but it could make it less of a cakewalk for Lukashenko.
"It's a tricky one," European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Jana Kobzova told The Moscow News. "He is probably going to win the election, even without Russian political support, because Lukashenko has no domestic opposition. Even if the elections were not rigged Lukashenko would be able to win.
"What is interesting is that unlike in previous elections candidates are presenting themselves as people who can mend bridges with Russia, there is some evidence that political parties are helped by money from Russia."
Although it is now to late for Russia to threaten to undermine Lukashenko's campaign they can make his next session extremely difficult for him. "What Russia is effectively doing is exerting pressure on Lukashenko and showing that this is how they can destabilise the regime." While he is still in control, "the economic model that he set up as the contract with his society is shaking."
Hope in desperate corners
Medvedev's indictment has given added impetus to opposition candidates, whether or not they are fighting a losing battle. "We have Lukashenko running the election," European Belarus presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov told The Moscow News. But Medvedev's virtual admonishment has real implications, he says.
"It is a very clear statement that there is something going wrong with the relationship between Russia and Lukashenko:There is a conflict and it is significant for the people of Belarus, who would like to have a decent economic situation," he said by mobile phone in the middle of an election drive.
"People are not afraid to display their attitude to the regime and they really want changes. There is some slight concern about how they will get through the transition period."
Both Russia and Europe can be wooed and not antagonised, he says. "I think there is space for a strategic partnership. I openly and clearly say that Belarus should move towards the European Union. I would also improve ties with Ukraine, they are dealing well with Russia and are making progress with Europe, that is a model which has to be effective."