By Jan Cienski in Minsk
Belarusians vote in presidential elections today, a contest which few doubt will result in the re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president who has ruled this ex-Soviet republic since 1994.
The contest is freer than past elections as, under EU pressure, Mr Lukashenko has granted his opponents limited access to public television, but the Belarusian leader still dominates the airwaves, and his police and bureaucracy have made it difficult for his opponents to mount a campaign that could threaten his power.
"We cannot call these elections honest and free," said Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet whom the few independent polls conducted in the country put in second place behind Mr Lukashenko. "The control of the country and voting is purely in the hands of the government. Lukashenko has predicted he will get 75 per cent of the vote, and I think it will be around that level."
Mr Lukashenko has been helped by the fragmented opposition, which has been unable to unite around a single candidate; instead, nine are running against him. Mr Lukashenko helped create that disunity by urging his supporters to sign the campaign petitions of many of his putative rivals.
Election observers monitoring the vote say so far formal procedures are being followed at voting stations they have visited. "The crucial issue will be the vote count this evening," said Pawel Poncyljusz, a Polish parliamentarian, noting that monitors are usually kept far enough away from the ballot-counting so as to be unable to check whether the procedure is honest.
Mr Lukashenko's opponents are hoping to muster a large crowd this evening in central Minsk to call for a new election, but the authorities have warned that such a gathering would be illegal.
As well as relying on the police and military for support, Mr Lukashenko also uses economic levers against potential opponents.
"A lot of people are on temporary contracts for government jobs and they fear they would lose their jobs," said Heather McGill, with Amnesty International, the human rights organisation which has issued a report condemning the government's record.
Mr Lukashenko was always the overwhelming favourite to win, but his odds were further strengthened by a recent agreement with Russia to resume duty-free imports of crude oil for Belarus's internal use. Belarus, which has not undertaken economic reform since the fall of the Soviet Union, is dependent on Russian oil and gas to keep its inefficient heavy industries functioning.
Russia had grown increasingly exasperated with the mercurial Mr Lukashenko, who has cannily slalomed between Russia and the European Union to retain as much independence as possible. In recent years Russia has moved to end energy subsidies to Belarus, pressuring Mr Lukashenko to move forward with an economic union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
"The Russians decided long ago that the political benefits of subsidising Belarus no longer pay," said Andrew Naff, an analyst with IHS Energy, a consultancy, noting that the new agreement will bind Belarus more tightly to Russia.