Belarus poised for clashes after election



MINSK, Belarus -- With media under tight control, parliament in his pocket, the opposition persecuted and powerful Russia on his side, no one doubts Alexander Lukashenko will be proclaimed the winner of Sunday's presidential election.

The question is what comes afterward. The opposition has pledged protests if it judges the election a fraud, and the authorities have banned any such demonstrations - setting the stage for potentially bloody clashes.

Lukashenko, branded "Europe's last dictator" by Western governments, has learned his lessons from the color-coded revolutions that brought opposition leaders to power in three other former Soviet republics.

He has packed the parliament entirely with his loyalists and thrown opposition figures in jail, while rejecting international calls for an independent investigation into the disappearances of four government opponents several years ago.

Independent newspapers can't sell their editions on the streets - they have to mail them to subscribers. The Free Theater, whose productions highlight state oppression, has to perform in private apartments and advertise its shows by word of mouth. Writers are pressured to toe the government line and cartoonists portraying Lukashenko unfavorably fled the country after being charged with slander.

Pop singers who extol Lukashenko win state honors and rewards. But Lyavon Volski, who sings "The sun will never rise in this country," has been driven underground, banned from performing outdoors or in concert halls.

Lukashenko, a 51-year-old former collective farm director, has ruled for 12 years and likes to be called "Batka" or "Father" of the 10 million Belarusians in this Kansas-sized republic squeezed between the expanding European Union and a resurgent Russia.

After pushing through a widely contested referendum scrapping presidential term limits, Lukashenko is seeking a third term against three rivals - two opposition candidates whom he has called "scum" and "imbeciles," and a pro-Lukashenko politician widely believed to be running to legitimize the election.

With six days left until polling day, the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, has seen scores of his supporters, including senior aides, detained. He complains of being denied virtually any 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 disperse protesters. Meanwhile, Belarus' top security official, Stepan Sukhorenko, accused the opposition of plotting to detonate explosives on election day in a crowd of supporters protesting against alleged fraud.

The opposition insists it is calling for strictly peaceful protests and if violence happens, it would be the government's work, intended as a provocation.

Western officials threaten to add to their blacklist more Belarusian officials alleged to be involved in fraud.

The government said Friday that the vote will be monitored by some 900 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and from the Commonwealth of Independent States - a loose, Russian-dominated grouping of 12 former Soviet republics whose monitoring missions have repeatedly given a stamp of approval to elections that OSCE and Western observers have criticized.

Moscow's support of Lukashenko is rooted in economic interests, including its desire to control the Belarus pipeline network that carries Russian natural gas to European consumers, and to prevent Belarus from falling to Western influences as have the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine.

"The Kremlin is afraid that any alternative to Lukashenko ... can lead to the same result: Belarus will start moving West-ward," said Oleg Manayev, an independent analyst.

A nationwide opinion poll of 1,500 Belarusians by Manayev's research team gave Lukashenko about 59 percent, and Milinkevich 17 percent. The margin of error in the February poll was given as 3 percentage points.

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

Analyst Manayev said much depends on whether Lukashenko's challengers can convince voters that the result is fraudulent and draw them onto the streets despite fears of government reprisals.

But many Belarusians see no alternative to their iron-fisted leader. The country's media ceaselessly praise Lukashenko's Belarus as an island of stability and prosperity compared to many former Soviet states experiencing economic problems and violent ethnic conflicts.

Many are unaware or unwilling to take note of rampant human rights abuses and are thankful to Lukashenko that their average monthly salaries of $250 and pensions of $110 are paid on time.

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

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