By Will Englund
MOSCOW - Russia has been putting the squeeze on Belarus, trying to get a foothold in the Belarusan economy, and a presidential election there Sunday could prove to be a significant moment in that quest.
Not that the outcome is in much doubt. President Alexander Lukashenko, who for 16 years has ruled with a dictatorial hand, is a likely shoo-in for a fourth term in a race that pits him against nine other candidates. But he has been steering his country on a zigzagging course - now antagonistic to Russia, now friendly - and recently trying to present a more acceptable image to the West.
If Western governments accept Sunday's vote as more or less legitimate - something they haven't done in past elections - it could give Lukashenko some standing in his negotiations with Moscow. He is clearly popular among Belarusans, noted Irina Kobrinskaya, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank. But the playing field has hardly been level.
About 90 percent of TV news time is devoted to Lukashenko's campaign. Workers for other candidates have been attacked and harassed. One candidate, Yaroslau Ramanchuk, was in what he calls a suspicious car accident last week, and on Monday, he showed up for a meeting with students and professors in Minsk, the capital, only to learn that city authorities had closed down the hall where they were to gather because of "problems" with the sewage system.
Early voting has already started, and Ramanchuk said it opens the door to "massive ballot fraud." He warned that exit polls, which helped convince Ukrainians that the first round of the election preceding their Orange Revolution in 2004 was fraudulent, are conducted in Belarus by companies controlled by the government.
"The authorities will use multifunctional falsification policies," he said.
Russia tried to thwart the Orange Revolution in Kiev six years ago and was unsuccessful. But it learned from the experience, Kobrinskaya said, and has employed a much more subtle approach this year in Belarus. Lukashenko has denounced two of his opponents - Vladimir Niakliaeu and Andrei Sannikov - as Russian puppets. But Kobrinskaya said Moscow knows that any attempt to insert its own candidate in the presidency won't work, and even if it did work, that president would soon find reasons not to follow Moscow's edicts.
What Russia wants is for Belarus to begin privatizing its largely state-owned economy. Russian businesses expect they would get most of the action. The West is not against privatization, and with Belarus carrying an unsustainable budget deficit, it's likely to happen at some point. The crux would be over how it is carried out.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States had persuaded Belarus to rid itself of weapons-grade nuclear material. In exchange, Belarus will be welcomed as a participant at the next U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Security Summit, in 2012.
Even as relations with the West have been thawing slightly, Lukashenko has hammered out an agreement with Russia that removes some trade obstacles. But Russians wonder, Kobrinskaya said, whether he'll hold up his end of the bargain.
"The current situation in Belarus differs significantly from the previous elections, in 2001 and 2006," candidate Niakliaeu told Radio Liberty, the U.S.-backed radio station. "Russian influence has grown, and there are tensions stemming from the relations between Lukashenko and the Kremlin. They're chiefly based on mercantile goals, on Lukashenko's search for money."
Ramanchuk said the deal with Russia is a "phony success" designed to help Lukashenko look good at home. He said the Russian leaders, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, are happy to have a phony success of their own, as elections approach in Russia. (Putin is known to detest Lukashenko.)
The customs deal, said Ramanchuk, who is an economist at a think tank, is structured in a way that will do more for "smugglers" and money launderers than for honest entrepreneurs.