MINSK, Belarus-Europe's longest-serving president staged a gala concert the other night to renew a paternalistic bargain with his people: another half decade of stability, order and growth, in return for acceptance of his authoritarian rule.
"I guarantee you and your families a secure and peaceful life in their land, an opportunity to study, work and live in safety," Alexander Lukashenko told the crowd of 15,000 people, most of them too young to remember any other leader of this former Soviet republic.
But as voting began this week in an election he is certain to win, the Russian largesse that has fueled years of rising incomes, welfare benefits and near-full employment is dwindling. The changes threaten a reversal of fortunes and a loss of faith in Mr. Lukashenko, who has run Belarus since 1994.
To offset his dependence on the Kremlin, the 56-year-old leader has started buying Venezuelan oil and courting the U.S. and European Union, which he had demonized for imposing sanctions on him and his officials years ago after the murders and disappearances of some of his opponents.
Western governments want to see Belarus as a buffer against Russian influence in Eastern Europe. But Mr. Lukashenko's hopes for their assistance, Western officials say, depend on how the election is judged: When balloting ends Sunday, international monitors who have accused him of rigging every previous vote his government has conducted must declare this one to be fair.
Many Belarussians are feeling the economic pinch already, and daring to air their complaints. Rising gasoline prices earlier this year ignited a rare protest in which dozens of motorists tied up a filling station for hours by buying half a gallon at a time and then lining up again at the pump.
Some single mothers earning the minimum wage say inflation has left them so short of cash that they must borrow to pay for medicine if a child catches a cold. Many retired people struggle on less than the promised minimum pension of $200 per month.
"We're like third-class citizens, we pensioners. Nobody needs us," Olga Alexandrova, a 75-year-old retired nurse who earns $170 a month, said Sunday at a town meeting with an opposition candidate in Soligorsk. Her doctor had ordered an ultrasound of her diseased liver, but because of medical service cutbacks, she said, she must wait 10 weeks for the procedure.
To be sure, most Belarussians are better off than they were the last time they re-elected Mr. Lukashenko, in 2006. Wages have nearly doubled in dollar terms, the economy has grown an average of over 7% per year, and every second household owns a car. With most of the economy in state hands and no stock market, Belarus' 9.5 million people were cushioned from the world financial crisis.
Economists say a crunch is soon to come. A pre-election borrowing spree has left the country with $11 billion in short-term debt, and hard-currency reserves have fallen to less than the value of two months' worth of imports. The Finance Ministry says the latest round of wage increases may be rolled back.
Russia has slashed its annual subsidies on oil and gas for Belarus from $13 billion, or about one-seventh of this country's gross domestic product, to $3.6 billion over the past four years.
Angered by the subsidy cutbacks, Mr. Lukashenko sparred publicly with the Kremlin for months before patching things up last week. He agreed to join an expanded economic union with Russia and Kazakhstan, paving the way for Russian companies to buy assets in Belarus. In return, Russia will stop charging Belarus customs duties for Russian crude oil, but start collecting export duties on the Russian oil that Belarus refines and sells abroad.
The accord boosted Mr. Lukashenko with voters by enabling the state-controlled media to portray him as a pragmatic dealmaker. But while he staved off a halt in Russia's oil assistance, independent analysts say the deal reduced Belarus's oil subsidy to $1.5 billion next year, the lowest ever.
"Every Socialist country can be sustained only with outside help, and our help from Russia is disappearing," says Jaroslav Romanchuk, an economist running for president from the pro-Western United Civic Party. "Mr. Lukashenko can appoint himself president, but his populist approach is exhausted. It will be a pyrrhic victory."
The likelihood of a payoff for Mr. Lukashenko's opening to the West also seems limited, although some leaders there are encouraged.
Belarus backed the Obama administration's nuclear-disarmament campaign by pledging this month to give up its uranium stocks. Accepting recommendations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mr. Lukashenko made it easier for opposition candidates, nine in all, to register for the election and to attack him on state television.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorsky said last month that Belarus could expect $3.5 billion in loans and credits from the EU if the election is free and fair-an estimate other EU officials say is improbably high.
Oleg Manaev, an independent pollster, says Mr. Lukashenko could win 60% of the vote without cheating. But the Central Election Commission resisted demands for more-transparent ballot counting in the country's 6,830 precincts, and it limited to 183 the number of precincts where opposition representatives will take part in the count.
The commission ruled out independent monitoring of ballot boxes at night during the five days of early voting nationwide. Mr. Lukashenko has said he expects to win 70% to 75% of the vote.
Anticipating fraud, five opposition candidates have called their supporters to rally Sunday night in defense of their votes. A similar demonstration after the 2006 election was crushed by the police and failed to shake what the Bush administration then called "the last true remaining dictatorship in Europe."
The opposition's weakness discouraged Svetlana Vetrova, a 42-year-old artist who had voted that year against Mr. Lukashenko and taken part in the protest. This time she's voting for him. "The opposition is just noise and nothing else," she says. "At least our president is getting us through the world recession. We need stability now, not change."
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