Lukashenko sure of re-election, opposition to protest

By Tom Balmforth Belarusians went to polls on Sunday to cast their vote in elections likely to hand President Alexander Lukashenko a resounding victory while the splintered opposition has vowed to protest in the snowy streets of Minsk. In power since 1994, ex state farm boss Lukashenko, 56, looks poised to claim a fourth, this time five-year term at the helm and, with protests in ten-below temperatures expected to peter out as seasonal festivities approach, eyes are trained on tomorrow's OSCE verdict. The international election monitor has never found elections in the post-Soviet nation of 9.6 million free or fair and the timorous let-up on opposition campaigning - such as granting candidates fleeting airtime in state media - is unlikely to allay similar findings. The brawny, mustachioed incumbent who styles himself as "Batka" or father of the people expects little challenge to his iron-fisted grip on power from the splintered, nine candidate opposition. "Why does the opposition make provocations?" Lukashenko asked journalists on Thursday. "They need provocations. They understand perfectly well that for them these elections probably hold nothing for them, so they need provocations." The opposition hopes to emulate protests after the 2006 elections which brought 10,000 Belarusians to camp out in central Minsk until they were dispersed by police and some jailed. "When the polls close, we will come out onto the square," Vladimir Nekliaev, poet-turned-oppositionist told journalists on Saturday. "It is the single mechanism in our opposition that we have in these elections." But analysts question the strength of the opposition who have not rallied around a single candidate as in 2006. "It's not just that the conditions for campaigning and politics are restrictive, it's that the opposition is genuinely weak," said Jana Kobzova, a Belarus expert for the European Council for Foreign Relations. Russia onside, EU watching Speculation swirled that powerful neighbor Russia would not recognize the elections after state television condemned "Batka" for widespread corruption and not recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while the Kremlin said he had lost "basic human dignity." Now Moscow appears to have mended ties with Minsk, wary of fomenting instability on its borders or stirring up unpredictable backlash that could lead to color revolution. Moscow sees Belarus as a buffer against NATO and EU expansion. At his annual Q&A session on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised Minsk for taking a "clear course toward integration with Russia," only days after Moscow conceded Lukashenko a lifeline energy deal worth $4 billion. But the International Monetary Fund in November found "serious vulnerabilities" in the command economy and analysts say that Lukashenko could find himself in a tight spot in the next two years if there is another chill in relations with Russia. The EU will be watching closely how protests are handled in Belarus, a key transit corridor for Russian gas to Europe and potential trade hub for the three member states which border it. The West has never recognized the legitimacy of Belarusian elections and deplores its crooked human rights record despite recently easing travel bans on Lukashenko hoping to coax the country famously called the "last dictatorship in Europe" away from Russia. Lukashenko has tried to appease the EU by fractionally loosening restrictions on campaigning for the muzzled opposition. But Brussels will still demand free elections, say analysts. "There have been a couple of changes that there haven't been before:I don't believe that the vote count won't be rigged. That will be the key," said Kobzova.


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