By Matt Robinson
MINSK (Reuters) - Voting got under way on Sunday in the former Soviet republic of Belarus in an election certain to extend strongman Alexander Lukashenko's 16-year stay in power for five more years.
Lukashenko won backing at the 11th hour from Moscow after being vilified on Russian television for weeks and he seemed set to continue a policy of playing off Russia against the West.
The conduct of the vote, the margin of Lukashenko's victory, and his handling of opposition protests could decide how far the European Union decides to engage the country of 10 million people on its eastern flank.
Lukashenko, 56, has ruled with an iron fist since 1994, but relations with chief benefactor Russia have frayed and the Kremlin has reined in the energy subsidies that underpin the Belarussian command economy.
Reconciliation last week, however, in the form of an oil and gas pricing deal, has extinguished any glimmer of opposition hope that Russia might withhold its endorsement.
The EU, now using more carrot than stick to try to loosen up Lukashenko's authoritarian rule, is dangling the prospect of financial aid if the vote at least has a veneer of fairness.
Brussels will take its cue from 400 monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, fanning out across the snow-bound country and due to report back on Monday.
The opposition says it will call supporters into the freezing October Square after polls close. But political fervour was in short supply on the broad, snow-laden avenues of the capital Minsk, its grey towerblocks shrouded in mist.
"I don't want to vote for Lukashenko but I don't know anything about the others. Maybe I'll vote for the 'against everyone' candidate," said Olga, a 34-year-old teacher, shortly before she went to vote.
"I voted for Lukashenko. We've been 16 years with him already," said Lyudmila, a factory worker in her 50s.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
The police and KGB state security warned on the eve of the vote that they would deal "decisively" with any attempts to stir tensions.
Presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, head of the opposition Tell the Truth movement, told reporters on Saturday: "The square is the only mechanism for opposing fraudulent elections."
A former state farm director, the moustachioed Lukashenko has been president for 16 years, muzzling dissent and jailing opponents while doling out generous welfare and pensions.
His straight talking, man-of-the-people image makes him popular in rural areas and among the elderly. Opposition access to media is severely limited.
The country serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to European consumers.
But a very personal falling out with the Kremlin in recent years, with Moscow angry at Lukashenko for several foreign policy snubs, has offered hope to Europe that he might open up the economy and loosen his political grip in return for EU financial support.
Lukashenko, however, patched things up with the Kremlin last week when Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices unchanged next year.
Past elections suggest he could claim 80 percent of the vote. Anything less might be taken as a nod to democracy and open the door to talks with the West. Polling stations open at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT).