The president will declare victory on December 19th-but may yet go
THE capital of Belarus, known as "the last dictatorship in Europe", looks like an advanced version of the Soviet Union. Minsk's broad, well-lit avenues are full of foreign cars, its Stalinist architecture nestles beside Western shops and the old slogans appear next to a McDonalds sign. Had the Soviet Union looked like this, it might have lasted longer. In Belarus it has-thanks to a paternalistic and dictatorial president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarus was among the most advanced industrial parts of the old Soviet Union. But with no tradition of statehood, it fell back to old ways when the Soviet Union broke up. In 1994 Mr Lukashenka, a former collective-farm boss, became president. He kept the command economy-and the security services. On December 19th Mr Lukashenka, who has changed the constitution to permit indefinite terms, will declare himself the winner of Belarus's presidential election for the fourth time.
Yet how long he can hang on to power is not so clear. His regime has depended on Russian subsidies and political support that are both on the way out. Despite a supposed union of the two countries, relations between Minsk and Moscow are icy because of Mr Lukashenka's habit of taking money but giving little in return. The energy subsidy has halved in value, from 14% of GDP to 7%. As well as getting cheap gas, Belarus used to buy Russian oil duty-free, refine it and sell the products on. Now Russia has raised gas prices (albeit less than elsewhere) and limited oil supplies. To fill its refineries Belarus has been reduced to bartering oil from Venezuela. It has also embarked on a borrowing spree.
This summer Moscow began a media campaign against Mr Lukashenka. Breezily calling a kettle black, it accused him of rigging elections, reneging on promises and brutally suppressing the opposition. Several documentaries were broadcast in Russia and, despite being censored, watched by Belarusians. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president, said Mr Lukashenka had gone "far beyond not only diplomatic protocol but also basic human decency".
This has led to a bizarre switch. The opposition that once looked to the West for support now sees Russia as its ally. Mr Lukashenka accuses the Kremlin of financing his opponents. And he is trying to woo the West, which he had demonised for imposing sanctions on him and his officials after the murders and disappearances of his opponents. He promised a free election and invited the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to send observers. And this week he promised to give up Belarus's uranium stockpile.
Nine opposition candidates were allowed to register and even appear on state television. The three main ones are Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat, Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet, and Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist. But Mr Romanchuk says the changes are cosmetic. "He is trying to persuade the West that something is changing, but it is like taking ten nails out of the coffin of democracy which is held together by 100 nails." In September Oleg Babenin, a journalist who ran an opposition website and backed Mr Sannikov, was found hanged. The authorities alleged suicide and the OSCE confirmed this, bewildering Mr Babenin's friends, who say he was killed by the security services to intimidate the opposition.
Yet Mr Lukashenka's anti-Russian rhetoric has impressed some Europeans. Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania's president, reportedly told European Union diplomats that a victory by Mr Lukashenka would safeguard stability and limit Russian influence. Other EU members promised rewards if the election was free and fair. The polls give Mr Lukashenka 30% support (some private polls say even less), not enough to win in the first round. But Mr Lukashenka is in no mood for a run-off. "If 70-75% of the population votes for me, it will be good. I don't need 95% or 97% like last time," he said. He can easily make this come true. There is "early" voting, easy to manipulate and hard to monitor (in 2006, 31% of votes were cast early). On election day, only a few of the 6,000 election stations will have opposition representatives.
Many of Belarus's 10m inhabitants are tired of Mr Lukashenka. Even raising pensions and wages, as he has done, has not lifted their mood. The exchange of Belarusian roubles into hard currency has gone up sharply in recent months. Young people see few opportunities at home.
The great gate of Minsk
Opposition leaders have no illusions about the election, but a power struggle may start when they bring people on to Minsk's main square to demand regime change and an honest vote. This worked in Kiev in 2004, but failed in Minsk two years later, when protesters were dispersed and their leader was jailed. Ukraine's orange revolution was triggered not just by a rigged election but by broader discontent over corruption. In Belarus corruption is concentrated at the top and less endemic lower down. The state is more authoritarian but less chaotic than it was in Ukraine.
Whereas Ukraine had a strong private sector before the orange revolution, most Belarusians are employed by the state on one-year contracts. So protesting means a direct loss of income. The security services can deal with activists. Mr Lukashenka has several security organisations at his disposal, co-ordinated by his elder son. Yet without Russian support the overt use of force carries risks.
Much will depend on whether Russia and the West accept Mr Lukashenka's victory. If they do not, his entourage may abandon him. Mr Sannikov says gloomily that "neither Moscow nor Brussels has any plan of action." Yet if the result of the election is predictable, its eventual outcome is not. That is progress, of a sort.