Authorities, opposition poised for potentially bloody clashes following Belarus election

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - With media under tight control, parliament in his pocket, the opposition intimidated and powerful Russia on his side, there is no doubt authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko will be proclaimed the winner of the March 19 presidential election.

The big question is whether the opposition and authorities are on the path toward bloody confrontation.

Lukashenko's opponents have called for peaceful protests if they see signs of election fraud and the authorities have banned any such demonstrations - prompting many to wonder how far the president is willing to go to secure his grip on this isolated ex-Soviet republic of 10 million.

Lukashenko, branded by Western nations "Europe's last dictator," has learned lessons from the so-called color revolutions that ushered opposition leaders to power in several ex-Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Georgia.

The 51-year-old former collective farm director has packed the parliament entirely with his loyalists, quashed independent media and thrown opposition figures in jail, while rejecting international calls to conduct an independent investigation into the disappearances of four government opponents several years ago.

Having pushed through a widely contested referendum scrapping presidential term limits, Lukashenko - who likes to be called "Batka" or "Father" of all Belarusians - is seeking a third term.

In the election he is facing off with three contenders - two opposition candidates whom he has called "scum" and "imbeciles" and a pro-Lukashenko politician widely believed to be running to add legitimacy to the election.

The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, has seen scores of his supporters, including senior aides, detained in the run-up to the vote and has accused authorities of trying to "behead" the opposition.

He complains of being denied access to media and most venues to meet with voters, and has called on his supporters to hold peaceful protests if votes are counted fraudulently.

But the country's chief police official, Vladimir Naumov, said all rallies will be banned on election day and vowed to "use all means within the law" to make protesters disperse.

Western governments repeatedly have expressed concern that the election campaign was not being conducted in a democratic way and Western officials threatened to extend the list of Belarusian officials involved in possible election fraud who would be barred entry to Western countries.

Russia, however, has steadily backed Lukashenko, despite occasional disputes during his 12-year rule, for economic and political reasons. Contrary to the findings of the OSCE observer mission, a Russia-led group of election observers from ex-Soviet republics has concluded that all presidential candidates were enjoying equal conditions in the campaign.

Moscow's support of Lukashenko is rooted in economic interests, such as its desire to gain control over Belarus' pipeline network, which it uses to carry Russian gas to European consumers. Russia is also keen on preventing a Western-oriented leader from coming power in Belarus and taking it out of Moscow's orbit.

"The Kremlin is afraid that any other alternative to Lukashenko ... can lead to the same result: Belarus will

start moving westward," said Oleg Manayev, an independent analyst.

A nationwide opinion poll conducted by Manayev's research team showed Lukashenko enjoying the support of about 59 percent of respondents, Milinkevich having 17 percent, and the other two opposition candidates about 5 percent each; the rest of respondents were undecided. The February poll was based on responses from 1,500 Belarusians; the margin of error was 3 percentage points.

State-controlled polling agencies put Lukashenko's support at 78 percent.

Manayev said the extent of the standoff between government forces and the opposition following the election will depend on the challengers' ability to prove possible election fraud to voters - and on the number of Belarusians willing to take to the streets despite fears of reprisals.

But many Belarusians do not see any alternative to their iron-fisted leader. The country's media ceaselessly praise Lukashenko for turning Belarus into an island of stability and prosperity against the backdrop of economic problems and violent ethnic conflicts that have plagued some neighbors.

Many are unaware or unwilling to take note of rampant human rights abuses and are thankful to Lukashenko for their average monthly salaries equaling US$250 (-210) and pensions of US$110 (-92)- modest but paid on time.

Tamara Shikhova, a 55-year-old Minsk worker, said she would vote for Lukashenko.

"My life hasn't gotten worse under his rule," she explained.