The remarkable consistency of Lukashenko

The presidential campaign in Belarus has provided few surprises.

(Angus Reid Global Scan) Wilson Lam - Aleksandr Kazulin should probably count himself fortunate. Had he been deemed a demonstrator last Thursday, government security forces could have shot him in accordance with a law passed recently. Instead, Kazulin, an opposition presidential candidate, was merely bloodied and bruised, then charged with disorderly conduct, and then held in custody for eight hours.

The whole incident could have been averted had Kazulin just stayed away rather than insisted on participating in a national forum on the economy that was titularly open to all citizens (it is called the All-Belarusian People's Assembly). The meeting was chaired by president Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is running for a third term in office against Kazulin and two other candidates.

Then again, no one should be particularly surprised at the treatment to which Kazulin was subject, for it is consistent with the way Lukashenko has increasingly dealt with political opposition. In his two terms has president, Lukashenko has gagged news outlets that he did not already control, harassed and jailed those who dared oppose him (including his own ministers after he fired them), and eliminated presidential term limits in a constitutional referendum that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described as falling "significantly short of international standards."

Indeed, elections in Lukashenko's Belarus have an unbroken record of being of questionable propriety and the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for Mar. 19, looks to continue the trend. Stephen Hadley, the U.S. national security advisor, said last week of the approaching election: "We would like it to be free and fair, and a prerequisite of a free and fair election is that you don't beat up opposition candidates or opposition supporters and throw them in jail. We think that there is not enough outrage and international attention on Belarus generally-in the run-up to this election in particular." His sentiment echoed the thought of a many other observers, including a number of members of the European Parliament.

Given Lukashenko's history, however, such comments will likely only add fodder to his charge that foreign powers are intent on toppling him. Stepan Sukhorenko, the country's security chief, warned last week that his office had uncovered an opposition plot, supported by countries like the United States, to destabilize the country. Sukhorenko said that opposition leaders had plans to set off an explosion in one of its own post-election rallies to use as a pretext to initiate a violent attempt to overthrow the government. The opposition will "start seizing official buildings and stations and blocking railway lines with the aim of completely paralyzing the functioning of the state," Sukhorenko said in his televised address.

Belarus is the only country among all the former Soviet republics in which the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), the state security agency of which Sukhorenko is head, has maintained both its title and expansive operational jurisdiction since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Aleksandr Milinkevich, another opposition presidential candidate and the acknowledged leading challenger, flatly denied the allegations made by Sukhorenko. "This is an absolutely malicious falsehood," Milinkevich said. "We are a peaceful people, a peaceful coalition. We are telling the authorities all the time: hold a fair election, and there won't be any revolution in Belarus. But the authorities do not want to do so."

Mentions of "revolutions" particularly rankle Lukashenko, who witnessed the 2004 presidential election in neighbouring Ukraine, in which the largely peaceful Orange Revolution overturned the fraudulent results and forced a new election. Indeed, dissidents in Belarus have already adopted a colour of their own. After an opposition protester was beaten senseless by police moments after he turned his blue denim shirt into a makeshift flag at a rally, the colour and the apparel became noticeably more conspicuous.

Addressing supporters at the All-Belarusian People's Assembly, Lukashenko said, "The Belarusian people have realized through their own experience that only dark forces are behind revolutions, regardless of the revolution's colour."

Whatever else may be said of Lukashenko, at least he is in a way predictable.