By Tom Balmforth
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said he is "absolutely confident" of claiming a fourth term after casting his vote on Sunday in elections almost certain to hand him a landslide victory while the opposition are gearing up to protest in Minsk's snowy squares in ten-below temperatures.
At the helm since 1994, the brawny ex state farm boss, 56, was in a buoyant mood as he cast his vote alongside his youngest son - now a tradition - and expects little challenge to his iron-fisted grip on power from the splintered, nine candidate opposition.
"I am going into the elections with absolute confidence. I feel the support of the people. If I didn't feel it, I wouldn't have run as a candidate," Lukashenko told journalists on Sunday.
"Don't worry - there will be no one out on the square today," Lukashenko said. "As for those who favor protests, they should read our laws. Everything will be done by the book," he said.
The opposition hopes to emulate protests in the 2006 elections when Belarusians camped out in Minsk for five days until they were dispersed by police with some jailed. The opposition says it already has evidence of vote-rigging and is calling for new elections without Lukashenko.
"When the polls close, we will come out onto the square," Vladimir Nekliaev, poet-turned-oppositionist said Saturday. "It is the single mechanism in our opposition that we have in these elections."
KGB state security said yesterday it would deal "decisively" with unrest stirred up by the "radical" opposition.
"Who did I vote for?" a grinning Lukashenko coyly asked one journalist in front of national television cameras. "We have secret elections so I won't tell you who I voted for. I'll tell you tomorrow. Why should I boost my ratings again?"
The OSCE has never found elections in the post-Soviet nation of 9.6 million free or fair and the timorous let-up on opposition campaigning - granting candidates fleeting airtime in state media - is unlikely to allay similar findings.
Speculation swirled that powerful neighbor Russia would not recognize the elections after state television lambasted Belarus's mustachioed incumbent, 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.
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, deft at playing the West off against Moscow, has tried to appease the EU by fractionally loosening campaigning restrictions on the muzzled opposition.
The EU will be watching closely for the OSCE election monitoring verdict, expected tomorrow, and Brussels' reaction could be key factor in Belarus' future foreign policy after relations with Russia plummeted this fall.
"It all depends on the countries of the European Union," said Lukashenko. "We are ready for partnership."