Europe's 'last dictator' goes to the polls in Belarus

Opposition activists in Minsk The opposition has been given limited freedom to campaign

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In most other countries the event would have been unremarkable, but in Belarus it was almost unheard of - campaign workers collecting signatures a few weeks ago in front of the main GUM department store in the centre of the capital, Minsk.

Dozens of activists chanted slogans, performed protest songs and read anti-government poetry.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has governed this former Soviet republic of 10 million people almost unchallenged since 1994.

Six years ago, he altered the constitution to allow him to run for an indefinite number of terms.

'We elected a tsar'

Many diplomats and political analysts expected this year's presidential contest, which takes place on Sunday, to follow the same script of tightly controlled pre-election campaigning.

Presidential candidates Vladimir Neklyayev with supporter in Minsk Opposition candidates have been allowed to make campaign broadcasts for the first time

But so far, a sudden blossoming of civic freedom in what is one of the world's most authoritarian political systems - Europe's "last dictatorship" as some call it - has caught a number of observers by surprise.

Besides allowing the signature-gathering scene in front of the department store, police stood to the side during a recent demonstration of around 3,000 people in Minsk's main square.

For the first time, state television also aired a debate among the nine candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko. Since Mr Lukashenko did not show up, the nine challengers used their air time to gang up on the Belarus leader.

And candidates have been able to make campaign broadcasts on national television openly attacking the government - although they have been limited to a paltry one hour each for the course of the campaign.

"Our authorities respect only one position - that of power," said Vital Rymasheuski, a candidate from the Belarusian Christian Democracy party.

"We intended to elect a president but we elected a tsar who cares only for his sons."

Start Quote

There won't be any changes, my son, no change at all. All of the villages and pensioners will vote for [Lukashenko]”

End Quote Anatoly Dyshkovich Voter

If the elections are democratic, European Union officials have promised to lend Belarus's cash-strapped government 3bn euros.

Some say that the pre-election political thaw is merely window-dressing, to curry favour with the West, but no real change is taking place.

"Lukashenko needs this to show to the Europeans because he needs money from Europe," said Andrei Sannikov, one of the three main opposition candidates.

"The economy is in very bad shape and he needs additional credits. That's why he is pressed and he simply has to show something."

But, in the end, most anticipate that the elections will produce the usual result: a Lukashenko victory.

Opposition leaders have promised that they will gather in Minsk's main square to demonstrate on election day.

In the last presidential contest four years ago, tens of thousands gathered for a week to protest against what they said was a rigged victory for Mr Lukashenko. A violent police crackdown ended the protests.

'Little Father'

The question is whether Mr Lukashenko would win if the contest were actually free and fair.

President Lukashenko, July 2010 The figure of President Lukashenko still towers over proceedings

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's main election monitoring body, has never given a clean bill of health to a Belarus election.

Many believe Mr Lukashenko would prevail in an open vote. He remains popular with large portions of the population, having preserved the subsidies and full-employment of the Soviet system. More than 70% of the economy remains in state hands.

"There won't be any changes, my son, no change at all," says voter Anatoly Dyshkovich, who is retired. "All of the villages and pensioners will vote for him.

"Batka was, Batka is, and Batka will always be," he added, using the common nickname for Mr Lukashenko, "Batka" - or "Father".

But others wonder if Mr Lukashenko's popularity is slipping. The country has been buffeted hard by the global economic downturn. Many factories keep producing to stay busy, but the goods they create are merely piling up, since export markets have disappeared.

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Belarus. But those that are available show an increase in voter discontent.

"If you look at polling, you do not get a clear picture of what free and fair elections would produce," said one European official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "In the past it was certain they would produce a Lukashenko victory. This time it's not clear."

Election poster in Minsk The EU and OSCE will be watching the fairness of the election closely

The biggest question mark hanging over the election is what the Kremlin will do. Moscow has been Mr Lukashenko's biggest supporter, and the two countries form a "Union State" - though this exists more on paper than in reality.

But in recent years, relations have become seriously strained. Some observers believe that Russia would like to see Mr Lukashenko go, and be replaced by a leader more amenable to Moscow's demands.

Other analysts say that the Belarus leader is politically too strong. Even if Russian officials wanted him to leave - which is not entirely clear - they would not be able to remove him.

Mr Lukashenko, for his part, says that he is not planning on going anywhere, whether by the ballot box or other means. Journalists asked him last week if the vote would bring any political changes.

"There will definitely be political changes," he said. "I am sure you meant political changes in general, but no change of power in Belarus."

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