PREVIEW: Fourth term for Belarus' Lukashenko seen as a dead cert

By Gennady Kesner and Ulf Mauder

Minsk - Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko has allowed an unprecedented field of 10 candidates to oppose him in Sunday's presidential race - but the strongman's re-election to a fourth term in office is almost certain.

Despite the widened competition this year, the man often dubbed 'Europe's last dictator' remains as firmly in the saddle as he has since assuming office in 1994, with state-controlled media firmly behind him and the opposition under pressure.

Indeed - feared by many of his countrymen - Lukashenko has made it clear he expects a thumping victory of around 70 per cent of ballots cast.

'The opposition is going to get about 1.5 per cent of the vote. Why should I try and falsify the election?' Lukashenko said when asked about fears of possible manipulation of election results.

As usual, Lukashenko's state-run media have taken to vilifying the opposition as incompetent and dangerous.

What is new, however, is that after an EU call for greater access to the media for the Belarusian opposition, Lukashenko permitted a live television debate between opposition candidates for the first time. The president himself didn't participate.

Now, in the final sprint to voting day, the state media are feeding the population almost exclusively positive messages about Lukashenko.

Election observers complain of an atmosphere of manipulation and intimidation. Opposition figures and journalists critical of the government have been arrested. Public demonstrations have been banned.

'The mood varies from indifference to hope, from fear to outrage,' said Nikolai Statkevich, 54, the candidate for the opposition Social-Democratic Party.

Former political prisoners told the German Press Agency dpa that shortly after election day 'the thumbscrews again will be screwed tighter ... the regime is not going to change.'

Except for some election posters in Belarus, there are few signs on the streets that there will soon be a presidential election.

But in the universities the pressure already is on, with students being threatened with poor grades, eviction from dormitory housing and even expulsion if they fail to cast early ballots.

The EU has offered Belarus billions of euros in aid if the elections are free and fair - part of a bid to begin a new dialogue with Lukashenko after years of isolation.

Many critics of the Belarusian government have mixed feelings about the EU's change of course. They complain of internet censorship and harassment by authorities. They also note that in April Lukashenko offered Kurmanbek Bakiev, Kyrgyzstan's ousted authoritarian president, political asylum.

'Any pressure on Belarus - whether from the East or West - is counterproductive,' Vladimir Makei, head of the Belarusian presidential administration said recently. 'Belarus has no need for EU billions in exchange for political reforms.'

In fact, democratic reforms are nowhere in sight. What the Belarusian regime has instead sought for years is an end to tight restrictions on travel to the EU by Lukashenko and his close advisers.

Lukashenko has in recent weeks remained true to his basic strategy of attempting to chart a winding course between the EU and Russia - for Belarus' maximum benefit.

Just days before election day, after months of spats with Russia, Lukashenko made a conciliatory trip to Moscow. Beaming, he posed before photographers with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The trip may not have been enough to mend fences. Recently, Medvedev called his country's relationship with Lukashenko 'damaged beyond repair.'

Russia's state-run media has called Lukashenko 'a lunatic.' There have even been open threats that Russia could might not accept a Lukashenko victory.

'Lukashenko is sure he is going to win, and he has a great deal of real support in the country. But he is not taking any chances,' said Elena Timashov, a political scientist at Belarus State Economics University.


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