by Andrew Roberts
Pre-election activities in Belarus have seen its people able to express freedom of speech for the first time in its recent history.
While in most other countries such an event would be unremarkable, campaign workers collecting signatures in Belarus a few weeks ago outside a department store in the capital, Minsk has been unheard of for decades. Chanting slogans, performing protests and reading anti-government protestors, rivals to President Alexander Lukashenko relished the opportunity to have their voices heard.
Since 1994, Lukashenko has been able to govern the former Soviet republic of around 10 million people without being unchallenged while in 2004, he altered the country's constitution that allowed him to be able to run office for an infinite number of terms.
While many diplomats and political experts expected this year's election contest, set to take place tomorrow, to follow the exact same script of all the tightly controlled pre-election campaigns that preceded it, a sudden blooming of civic freedom in one of the modern world's most heavily authoritarian-run political systems , or Europe's last dictatorship, has caught observers completely by surprise.
Besides signature-gathering in front of the aforementioned department store, police took a back-seat and allowed 3,000 people to demonstrate in Minsk's main square while a live debate between candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko was also broadcasted to millions. As Lukashenko didn't show up, the nine hopeful challengers held no quarter in using their air time to launch a united attack on the Belarus leader.
Even in the event that no new President is elected, recent developments show that things in Belarus are dramatically improving.