Opposition leader warns of Belarus poll boycott

By Nick Holdsworth in Moscow

The leading opposition candidate in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, is threatening to boycott next weekend's presidential elections because of growing state-sponsored intimidation against his supporters.

Alexander Milinkevich, a mild-mannered, 58-year-old physicist, says he lost his job at Grodno State University after announcing that he would challenge President Alexander Lukashenko, the former state farm boss who has held sway over Belarus for the past 12 years.

He told the Sunday Telegraph that he may decide as early as tomorrow to withdraw from the race in protest at the government's systematic abuse of the opposition and its supporters, including the arrest of more than 200 of his party workers over the past year. "We will consider boycotting these elections if state repression against us increases. Only yesterday 10 members of my team were sentenced to 15 days in jail by two courts in Minsk, ensuring they will not be able to participate in the election," said Mr Milinkevich during a rural campaign stop near Brest, close to the country's western border with Poland.

His threat to pull out comes after weeks of officially licensed violence and increasingly paranoid claims by Mr Lukashenko of fraud and foreign intervention in the campaign - despite the fact that his opponents concede that the president will win 80 per cent of the vote.

Posters of the rival presidential candidates are widespread, but many in Belarus will vote for the president simply to ensure stability.

The election is regarded by Western governments as so tainted from the outset that none has bothered to send official observers -and some have called on voters to throw out their president. Two years ago, Mr Lukashenko changed the Belarus constitution - illegally, his critics say - so he could stand for a third term in office.

Mr Milinkevich has no expectation of winning, but hopes to help to change hearts and minds. "People want us to participate in these elections and have been coming out in their hundreds and thousands during the months of campaigning across the country," he said. Supporters plan to gather in the centre of Minsk, the capital, on Sunday, as the election results become known, in what some hope will be a re-run of neighbouring Ukraine's "orange revolution" - a "denim revolution" as some are calling it, after a man who hoisted a jeans shirt as a protest flag during one demonstration.

"It's possible there may be violence," said Mr Milinkevich. "It is another question whether Lukashenko's forces will raise a hand against ordinary people. It is a question of how many people will fight their fears and come out on the streets."

Mr Lukashenko has steadily tightened his grip on the country and its 9.8 million people over the past 12 years, backed by Moscow, which has granted Belarus unrestricted access to cheap Russian gas imports. The president's admiration for Adolf Hitler for "raising Germany from the ruins thanks to firm authority" - despite the fact that one in four Belarussian citizens died under Nazi occupation - and his use of violence for political ends has earned him worldwide condemnation. His political enemies have been imprisoned or have disappeared, critical newspapers have been banned and television and radio neutered.

The president has already warned of violence if people take to the streets on Sunday. "There will be no disturbances," he said. "No one will climb on to the barricades to fight Lukashenko. If there are provocations, we'll give them such a going-over they won't know what's hit them."

As polling day draws closer, the president's power apparatus - headed by a state security service that retains its Soviet-era name, the KGB - has been busy uncovering a series of apparently subversive plots. "Recently the KGB unmasked 72 organisations - a whole network in our country," Mr Lukashenko told a Minsk government assembly last week. "Hundreds of millions of dollars, mobile telephones, computers, protocols ready in advance for rigging the elections."

While he spoke, in the foyer outside plainclothes policemen were beating up Alexander Kozulin, another opposition candidate, who had tried to get into the meeting. When one of Mr Kozulin's aides returned later to retrieve a confiscated camera, a KGB officer opened fire on his car.