Leaked cables report Alexander Lukashenko, who is set to win Sunday's election, intends to 'stay in power indefinitely'
* Miriam Elder in Moscow and Luke Harding
Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic ruler of Belarus who is poised for re-election for a fourth term this weekend, is an increasingly "bizarre" and "disturbed" ruler who plans to stay in power indefinitely, according to US diplomats in Minsk.
Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator because of the heavy-handed nature of his 16 years in power, is certain to win Belarus's presidential election this Sunday, cementing his grip on the ex-Soviet country and provoking criticism from the west, which has tried - without much success - to nudge the country in a more democratic direction.
A series of secret US diplomatic cables from Minsk, released by WikiLeaks, describe a president who "intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course". The president, who brooks no dissent and has locked up opponents, is unapologetic about the violence demonstrators suffer from his forces.
"Regarding civil society complaints of violence against them, Lukashenko stated the opposition should expect to get hurt when they attack the OMON [riot police]," one cable from October 2009 said. "Lukashenko also claimed Belarus has no political prisoners, but that common crooks join the opposition after they are arrested in order to claim political persecution."
Sunday's election is Belarus's fourth since independence in 1991. Opposition candidates have accused Lukashenko's regime of ballot stuffing in early voting. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has sent monitors to Sunday's vote, has never branded a Belarus election free and fair.
The opposition has warned it will turn out en masse on Sunday night if the election does not enter a second round. Nine opposition candidates are running against Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994. They believe they have succeeded in splitting Lukashenko's support, making him incapable of - justly - capturing the needed majority.
"There will be no violence from our side," the opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov said. "We are very true to the principle of non-violent resistance."
His supporters estimate 100,000 protesters would show up if there is no second round. The last election in 2006, which saw Lukashenko take 86% of the vote, led to a violent standoff between government and opposition.
Lukashenko claimed in private to have scored even higher than 86% in 2006. "[He] repeated earlier claims that in the 2006 elections he actually received 93% of the vote, but reduced the final tally to 86% to make the vote more credible to the west," another secret cable said.
The president's behaviour after the 2006 poll was described as "bizarre".
"The setting of Lukashenko's press conference showed a leader far removed from the people," a US diplomat noted. "He sat at a large desk, flanked by two large flags centred high on a large stage, isolated from the packed auditorium. His curt answers to western journalists and scolding of Belarusian correspondents only helped to show the world his bizarre behaviour, yet he still received healthy applause from his well-chosen audience and foreign lackeys."
A question and answer session "only aggravated more bizarre answers from a clearly disturbed Lukashenko."
The October 2009 cable also focused on Lukashenko's vexed relations with Russia. Although Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin cautiously praised Lukashenko on Thursday in Moscow, ties have recently been severely strained by wrangling over the price Belarus pays for Siberian gas. The cable details a private meeting between Lukashenko and Estonia's foreign minister Urmas Paet in the Belarus capital Minsk, in which Lukashenko lets rip his frustration at Belarus's might fellow-Slavic and fellow-orthodox neighbour.
Lukashenko maintained "an anti-Russian tone throughout the meeting," the cable reported, and strongly criticised Russia's decision to build a NordStream pipeline under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Belarus.
Lukashenko also complained - wrongly as it turned out - he would be forced to recognise the Russian-backed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in exchange for cheap Russian gas.
He also squarely blamed the Kremlin for its 2008 war with Georgia, and said that Georgia's pro-western leader Mikhail Saakashvili had invited him to visit. The cable states: "He (Lukashenko) complained that Russian media is full of falsifications. On Georgia, Lukashenko claimed Russia had planned the war years in advance and tricked Saakashvili into acting, and told Paet Saakashvili had invited him to Georgia. Lukashenko was considering accepting this invitation, but had not yet done so since he did not want to annoy the Kremlin."
Other cables note that Lukashenko is the wealthiest individual in Belarus, with a personal fortune put at $9bn (?6bn). He comfortably tops a list of the country's richest 50 oligarchs, US diplomats suggest. "Those listed had the opportunity to enrich themselves, and evidence indicates that many did so," the cable says bluntly.
The US extended sanctions against Belarus in September, and last month the EU renewed its travel ban against 41 Belarusian officials.
For many months, it appeared as though Lukashenko had lost favour with Russia, his country's biggest backer, as he courted the EU for funds as the financial crisis ravaged the state's coffers. The country was forced to take a $2.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2008.
Amid the financial standoff, Lukashenko implemented an unprecedented degree of openness. Candidates were allowed to register and print their manifestos in newspapers. Televised debates were held, though Lukashenko did not take part. "He was forced to play this game as he didn't know if Russia would support him," said Pavel Marinich, a political analyst in Minsk. "His goal is to maintain power - he understands it as a means of personal security."
But a trip to Moscow on 9 December sealed Kremlin support. The countries signed an energy deal that will see Belarus paying preferential terms for Russian oil and gas and hand over any profit it gains for exporting energy on to Europe.
On Wednesday, the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin praised Lukashenko for taking "a clear course towards integration with Russia."
In Moscow, Lukashenko sought to set the stage for the elections. "There will definitely be political changes," he said. "But no change of power in Belarus."