By Tom Balmforth
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko looks poised to claim a fourth term at the helm when Belarusians cast their vote this Sunday despite him chiding international election observers and warning the opposition not to get carried away with "provocations."
In power since 1994, the former state farm boss, 56, stormed to victory in the last elections in 2006 with some 80 percent of the vote and analysts expect similar figures on Sunday despite Belarus's powerful neighbor, Russia, launching a smear campaign against Lukashenko.
The OSCE has never found elections in the post-Soviet nation of 9.6 million free or fair and the recent timorous let-up on opposition campaigning , such as granting candidates fleeting airtime in state mass media - is unlikely to allay similar conclusions.
"You see [the foreign observers] practically feel like they are the masters in these presidential elections, although they are observers...They are not here to decide. They are here to describe the election process," Lukashenko told journalists on Thursday.
Two opposition leaders Andrei Sannikov and Vladimir Neklayev called for an end to vote-rigging on Thursday evening as some 800 protestors gathered calmly on Freedom Square under light snowfall, waving flags and murmuring "New elections without Lukashenko.?"
"Why does the opposition make provocations?" Lukashenko asked journalists. "They need provocations. They understand perfectly well that for them these elections probably hold nothing for them, so they need provocations."
The splintered, seven-candidate plus opposition have not united behind one figure as they did in 2006 when their campaign drew 10,000 Belarusians to camp out in central Minsk to protest Lukashenko's resounding electoral victory until being dispersed by police.
"It's not just that the conditions for campaigning and politics are restrictive, it's that the opposition is genuinely weak," Jana Kobzova, a Belarus expert for the European Council for Foreign Relations, said.
Russia onside, EU watching
Speculation had circulated that powerful neighbor Russia would not recognize the elections after state television this fall charged Lukashenko with widespread corruption, condemned him for not recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while the Kremlin said he had lost "basic human dignity."
Now Moscow appears to have patched up ties with Minsk ahead of the elections, wary of fomenting instability on its borders or stirring up unpredictable backlash that could lead to color revolution as in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
At his annual Q&A session on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised Minsk for taking a "clear course toward integration with Russia," only days after Moscow conceded Lukashenko an energy deal worth $4 billion, a vital lifeline for Belarus' ailing command economy.
Moscow traditionally sees the post-Soviet nation of 9.6 million as a buffer zone against NATO and EU expansion.
The West has never recognized the legitimacy of Belarusian elections and deplores its crooked human rights record despite recently easing travel restrictions on Lukashenko hoping to coax the country famously called the "last dictatorship in Europe" away from Russia.
Lukashenko has tried to appease the EU, which shares three state borders with Belarus, by fractionally easing restrictions on campaigning for the muzzled opposition. But Brussels will demand more, say analysts.
"There have been a couple of changes that there haven't been before. I don't believe that the vote count won't be rigged. That will be the key," Kobzova said.
MINSK, December 17 (Tom Balmforth, Russia Profile)