Belarus opposition calls for rally on poll eve

By Maria Antonova (AFP)

MINSK - Fearing voter fraud, the opposition in Belarus Saturday mulled a "revolution on skates" after authorities turned a key square into an ice rink to prevent rallies during a weekend presidential election.

Few doubt President Alexander Lukashenko, 56, will sail to victory in Sunday's vote after a low-key campaign, cementing further his grip on the poor ex-Soviet nation.

The sidelined opposition candidates, who say several days of early voting would skew the results in favour of the incumbent strongman, hope to muster a large protest on the central square in the capital Minsk on Sunday night.

To prevent possible rallies, the authorities turned the square into a giant ice rink decorating it with a Christmas tree, the city's largest. And authorities warned that any protests would be firmly put down.

"The ice will not pose a problem," opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov told AFP.

The protest, added opposition candidate Vladimir Nekliayev, is the "sole instrument against falsifications of the elections."

Seven of the nine candidates have called upon Belarussians to take to the city's main Oktyabrskaya square, prompting local internet site Naviny.By to dub the possible demonstration Belarus's "revolution on ice skates."

State media accused the opposition of attempting to organise a "colour revolution" similar to mass rallies that ousted the old regime in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.

"It seems like some candidates still have 'colour dreams'," wrote state newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta earlier this week.

People took to the streets in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 following disputed elections, with the rallies going down in history as the Rose and Orange revolutions respectively.

Officials, speaking on state television, sternly warned against mass demonstrations and suggested they may end in bloodshed.

The head of the Belarussian state security service KGB Vadim Zaitsev pledged that "adequate measures will be used" against any "provocation".

He said that "there were attempts to purchase 3,000 metal rods" by the "so-called opposition". He did not elaborate and the news programme then jumped to footage of bloody riots in Kyrgyzstan in April.

The opposition insists the rally would be peaceful. "It will be a peaceful protest against dictatorship and falsification," Nekliayev added.

But it was still unclear Saturday what sort of strategy will be followed if people show up at the ice-covered square en masse. With the winter holidays a mere week away, people are unlikely to camp in the square for weeks amid frigid temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius below zero.

In March 2006, opposition candidates addressed a crowd of some 30,000 at the square after polls closed, but the rally died down soon afterwards despite calls to reconvene the next day.

"We will wait for results, and will decide on the square," said Sannikov, "the people will decide." Asked to comment on the odds of a possible "revolution on ice skates," Sannikov said with a smile: "Let's not jump ahead of ourselves."

Lukashenko, who is running for a fourth term and was once described as Europe's "last dictator" by Washington, is opposed by nine candidates ranging from a poet to businessmen.

At the helm of the impoverished former Soviet republic for the past 16 years, he has shown no hint of wanting to step down or share his power.

The opposition said they feared Lukashenko, who has dominated the media in the run-up to Sunday's polls, would get an edge through the controversial practice of early voting when voters can cast their ballots prior to election day.

Nearly 18 percent of Belarussians have voted early by Saturday morning, the Central Election Commission said.

"Obviously it is explained by administrative pressure," said Sergei Kalyakin, head of independent monitoring group For Free Elections, referring to the percentage number.

The early ballots can be easily falsified because the ballot boxes stand unguarded through the night, Kalyakin said. In the 2006 elections, some 30 percent of voters cast their ballots before the official election day.


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