From Jeremy Page in Minsk
THE state security agent did not identify himself, or even shout a warning, before he pulled a pistol from his jacket and opened fire on Yuri Radevil's car in the centre of Minsk.
He shot out the tyres. Then he smashed the windscreen with the pistol butt as Mr Radevil, a 23-year-old opposition activist, tried to drive his Audi away, the three girls in the back screaming in terror.
Opposition supporters in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, branded by the West Europe's last dictatorship, are accustomed to being harassed, beaten and detained. Yet even they were shocked by the agent's actions just two weeks before President Lukashenko seeks another five-year term in the election on March 19.
"Imagine if he'd raised his gun a little higher ," said a witness, who asked not to be named. "After shooting in broad daylight, I'm sure they won't hesitate to use military methods against protesters."
The incident was an ominous example of the lengths to which Mr Lukashenko will go to preserve the Soviet-style economic and political control he has resurrected since taking power 12 years ago.
The former collective farm manager is widely expected to win the vote thanks to his monopoly of the media and the electoral apparatus. But Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, is already urging his supporters to gather in central Minsk on the evening of March 19 to learn the "real results".
"We prefer evolution to revolution," he told The Times. "But for that we have to have fair elections. And the authorities haven't even tried to create the illusion of fair elections."
Opposition youth activists talk idealistically of a "jeans" revolution, named after a man who used his denim shirt as a flag at a recent protest.
Mr Lukashenko has made it clear that he will crush any attempt to start the sort of protests that toppled his counterparts in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. "They [the West] don't have any lessons to teach us in terms of human rights," he said in an address last week.
"They've covered the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia in blood. They say:
'We're going to democratise Belarus'. Democratise yourselves first!" Once again, an election in part of the former Soviet Union is turning into a proxy battle between Russia and the West, analysts say.
This time, however, there is real potential for a violent climax that could tarnish Russia's debut year holding the presidency of the G8.
Unlike previous elections, the West has given up all pretence of being impartial and is openly calling for the ousting of Mr Lukashenko.
President Bush has branded Belarus an "outpost of tyranny" and allocated $12 million (?7 million) for promoting democracy in the country this year. The EU is also funding pro-opposition radio broadcasts into Belarus and channelling money to pro-democracy groups. "The ultimate goal of our policies here is basically regime change," admitted one Western diplomat.
Russia is desperate to stop another former Soviet state turning its back on Moscow and integrating with the EU and Nato. Moscow provides subsidies worth $3 billion to 5 billion to Belarus, mainly by selling it cheap oil and gas, and is discussing a plan to reunify.
There is, however, no love lost between President Putin and Mr Lukashenko, who wants equal status in any unified state and often criticises the Kremlin in public. Mikhail Fradkov, the Russian Prime Minister, met Mr Lukashenko this week in Minsk but did not explicitly back his candidacy.
Belarussian officials insist that the election will be free and fair. In the past year, though, the authorities have closed dozens of newspapers and pro-democracy groups and repeatedly jailed and fined opposition supporters.
Last week security agents beat up another opposition candidate, Alexander Kozulin. The shooting incident occurred when Mr Radevil tried to collect a camera used to take pictures of security agents assaulting Mr Kozulin's supporters.
When he went to the prosecutor's office to complain he was charged with threatening a police officer. It is still unclear who fired the gun but he is widely rumoured to have been a senior member of the elite anti-terrorism unit, Almaz.
The mere mention of Almaz sends a shiver down Svetlana Zavadskaya's spine. Her husband, Dmitry, is one of several prominent critics of Mr Lukashenko who have "disappeared" in the past five years. She says that she will still take part in the protest on March 19 but she fears the worst. "Bloodshed is quite possible," she said.
STRUGGLE IN BELARUS
# Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944 led to 2.2 million deaths, including much of the Jewish population
# In 1945 a large portion of western Belarus which had belonged to Poland was merged into the Soviet Union
# During the 1960s the Soviet Union implemented a process of "Russification", curtailing use of Belarussian language and culture
# Severely affected by the Chernobyl explosion; hundreds of thousands suffered high radiation doses
# Attained independence in 1991
# Lukashenko made President in 1994; begins to reaffirm ties with Russia. Gradually strengthens his hold on power