Belarus: fear on the streets

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 center of Minsk.

He shot out the tyres. Then he smashed the windscreen with the pistol butt as 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 as 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 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 Aleksandr 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.

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 Kyrygzstan. "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 democratize Belarus'. Democratize yourselves first!" Once again, an election in 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 pretense of being impartial and is openly calling for the ousting of Lukashenko.

President Bush has branded Belarus an "outpost of tyranny" and allocated dollars 12million (pounds 7million) for promoting democracy in the country this year. The EU is also funding pro-opposition radio broadcasts into Belarus and channeling money to pro-democracy groups.

By Jeremy Page

The Times of London