Belarus prepares for rubber-stamp presidential election

Minsk: Europe's longest-serving national leader, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, is all set to extend his record. His elaborate campaign, incorporating a nationwide pop tour, is proof of his conviction.

On March 19, the former Soviet republic, situated between Poland and Russia, will choose a new president. Belarus's head of state holds almost total power, and the man Belarusians elect will determine, usually directly, the course of the lives of eleven million citizens over the next five years.

Supporters of democracy worldwide are hoping that, as happened in Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution, an energised Belarusian populace will replace a reigning Soviet-era strongman with a pro-Europe politician.

The interest level in the vote, inside the country among Belarusians anyway, is not particularly high, however. But the election concert's national tour is generating major interest.

A pop concert is touring Belarus these days - a big deal in a country where low-budget acts even from neighbouring Russia and the Baltic region are few and far between. The glitzy rock and folk song and dance display is financed by the Belarusian government, and the programme is entitled "We are for Belarus".

Belarusians nationwide are well aware what that means: "We are for Lukashenko". And if they aren't, the performers soon set them straight.

During the concert mid-profile personalities from Belarusian and Russian show business - some having made their name in the Soviet era, and others with careers' that peaked in the 1990s - praise Lukashenko before and after, and sometimes even during, just about every number.

"We are so grateful to Aleskander (Lukashenko) for this opportunity to perform in this wonderful land of Belarus," gushed Valentina Senchina, a Soviet-era soprano, most famous for patriotic songs about World War II and heroic workers.

Lukashenko's opponents, three representatives from the country's splintered and demoralised opposition, have appeared on television once. Lukashenko allowed each one hour to address viewers, and another hour on radio. Political advertising is banned.

"We are expecting nothing and no one new. Everything is going to be as it was," said Anna Rudenko, a Minsk retiree. "Lukashenko is going to name himself president, my vote has no meaning, and that's why I'm not going to vote."

The upcoming vote, and the government's ability to manipulate its results with impunity, leaves her with a sense of futility and hopelessness.

Rudenko said she plans to be standing in Minsk's central October Square after polls close on voting day, as the opposition is calling for a demonstration against the expected Lukashenko win.

The authorities have already banned the protest, and they are making clear they will use force to keep people like Rudenko off the streets.