Belarus authorities, opposition may clash following election


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

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.

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 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.

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.