By JIM HEINTZ
MINSK, Belarus -- Belarus' authoritarian leader, a frequent antagonist of both Russia and the West, seeks a fourth term in Sunday elections, and his opponents claim he's prepared to commit fraud to get it.
President Alexander Lukashenko has led Belarus since 1994 in a heavy-handed regime that is often characterized as the last dictatorship in Europe.
The 56-year-old former collective farm manager maintains a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping some 80 percent of the industry under state control.
Although once seen as almost a lapdog of Russia, supporting establishing a common currency with his giant neighbor, Lukashenko in recent years has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends.
In the months leading up to the election, Lukashenko claimed his opponents in Sunday's vote were getting funding from Russia. His criticism of Moscow brought a public rebuke from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus - a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a year.
But Lukashenko also is working to curry favor with the West, which has harshly criticized his years of human rights abuses and repressive politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the U.S., which in previous years he had cast as an enemy.
The European Union, eager to see reforms in the obstreperous country on its borders, has offered euro3 billion ($3.9 billion) in aid to Belarus if the elections are judged to be free and fair.
The prospects of such a judgment and payout seem remote, however - "that would seem to be a bridge too far," said analyst Andrew Kuchins of the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies - even though the campaign is by far the most free seen under Lukashenko's 16 years in office.
He faces nine other contenders, who were uncharacteristically allotted time for debates on state TV and radio and whose campaign rallies have met less official obstruction than in previous elections. A candidate needs to get half the total votes in order to win in the first round; the large number of challengers appears to make that unachievable for any of them, but a combined strong performance could deny Lukashenko an outright victory.
The opposition contends he will manipulate the vote count to achieve just that, and they are calling for protesters to gather on a central square to protest election fraud as soon as the polls close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT, 1 p.m. EST).
The opposition used the same strategy in the 2006 elections, which saw an unprecedented encampment of protesters in the square for five days before they were rounded up by riot police.
This year, the authorities have flooded all but a small slice of the square to make an ice-skating rink, but the call for the demonstration hasn't been rescinded and some organizers reportedly are calling on supporters to bring bags of salt and sand to counteract the ice.
"We are going to stand for our rights there," Vladimir Neklyayev, a top opposition candidate, said Saturday.
Lukashenko may have less tolerance for protest than he did in 2006.
This week, in a meeting with the head of the country's security council, Lukashenko said that demonstrators can "Go in peace to the places where you have been allowed to go, places that have been allocated for this ... but if we are speaking about a violation of the law, the reaction must be adequate."
The square is not an authorized demonstration site, and Central Elections Commission head Lidiya Yermoshina explained why, with logic that to the opposition may seem as slippery as the ice rink.
As of the polls closing, there won't be any more candidates "if, of course, a second round of elections isn't called ... Therefore, there can be no kind of pre-election events after 8 p.m."
Maria Danilova contributed to this report.