Belarus preps for a rubber-stamp presidential election

By Tatiana Shebet

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 19th 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 generation 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 Two and heroic workers.

The show is packing provincial theatres from Grodno to Gomel. The highly-sought tickets are free but available only through one's place of work. As a result, concert-goers have practically been limited to provincial bosses, their flunkies, their wives, and children.

These days, images of the well-fed, fur-clad audiences - concert halls in provincial Belarus are unheated - rising to their feet and giving the show a standing ovation are a standard feature of Belarusian television.

A recording of each live concert is aired at least once on provincial TV in the week after the event, and even if viewers miss it, the national channel Bel-1 chronicles the movements of 'We are for Belarus!' on a daily basis

Lukashenko's opponents, three representatives from the country's splintered and demoralized 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.

'Take my monthly pension for example, it's 87 dollars,' Rudenko explained. 'I worked all my life in high-paying jobs, and now, half my money goes right back to the government for utilities. Lukashenko meanwhile announces he's raising pensions to 107 dollars and I can't do anything about it.'

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.

'If we try and arrest people and they resist, there is no way to exclude bloodshed,' explained Stepan Sukhorenko, a KGB spokesman. 'It is very possible a violent confrontation is in the interest of certain persons.'

The term 'certain persons' is a standard expression used by Belarusian officials and media to describe Western countries like the US and its allies, that want to see Lukashenko out of power.

'We will not permit lawlessness, and we will enforce the law under all circumstances,' Sukhorenko said. 'If people violate the ban on protests, they will be arrested and punished.'

The police will be on October Square in full battle gear, and 'will be capable of dealing with any situation adequately,' he added.