Lukashenko loosing grip over Belarus

Starting March 14, Belarusian polling stations will be open for five days of so-called early voting, apparently for those Belarusians who would otherwise have difficulty voting for the president of their country on election day itself - Sunday, March 19.

The choice for Belarusians will be between the "stability and security" being offered by Alexander Lukashenko and the "freedom, truth and justice" being proposed by his main challenger, Alexander Milinkevich.

Unprecedented in Europe, the 5+1 day voting is only one of the many strange, but effective tricks that Lukashenko is using to keep his post-Soviet Belarus running and under his control.

But Lukashenko will have to come up with many more tricks if he wants to stay in power, since 2006 may prove to be a defining year for Belarus, and for Lukashenko personally. The death of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic has certainly not added anything positive to the current mood of Alexander Lukashenko and his thinking about the future.

For the last 12 years, Lukashenko has kept an iron grip on Belarus, succeeding in keeping the country isolated from the rest of the world and unchanged.

The country's economic growth, fueled by unconditional support from Russia and growing trade relations with the European Union, as well as the events that transpired in Ukraine last year, have allowed Lukashenko to wield his usual tools of control over society - potentially jeopardized material interests and fear. Lukashenko has been preparing carefully for yet another "elegant victory."

Lukashenko's team has invited international election observers, including observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In order to make these elections look fair, he has allowed three other candidates for the presidency beside himself: Alexander Milinkevich, Alexander Kozulin and Sergei Gaidukevich. But neither has a fair chance. The campaigns of some true challengers such as Milinkevich are systematically tampered with; other challengers are seen as technical candidates whose purpose is to divide up the oppositionist vote. Dividing up the oppositionist vote is key, as polls suggest Lukashenko has just over 50 percent support. Getting more than 50 percent in the first round is key to Lukashenko, who fears facing a true oppositionist in a second round runoff vote.

Lukashenko may never understand the spirit of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, but he certainly understands its consequences.

For weeks now law enforcement agencies have been hunting for active members of the true Belarusian opposition. Every opposition meeting with voters ends with arrests. Young people are arrested at their homes and detained for hooliganism.

Opposition leaders, former lawmakers and ordinary opponents of the current regime, and even Ukrainian citizens, have also been sentenced to temporary prison terms or kicked out of the country to make sure that they won't be around for the elections.

It is clear that Lukashenko's main focus is not campaigning for re-election, but decreasing the mood of protest in the country. However, this also shows that the regime has a real concern about an unexpected eruption of protests. According to observers, Lukashenko has never seemed as afraid as he is today. The chances that massive street side protests could erupt are higher than any time during his iron fisted rule.

Lukashenko certainly has many reasons to feel threatened as internal and external support seems to be veering out of his control.

Criticism from the West of his dictatorship rule and poor human rights record are higher than ever. But more troubling to him is the fact that traditionally strong support for his regime in neighboring Russia is dissipating, in line with his falling popularity on his home turf.

The European Union, along with the United States, has been developing a more thought-out position toward the current regime in Belarus, which excludes legitimizing a third Lukashenko term, but includes - at least - targeted sanctions.

Following the elections, Russia may want to hold Lukashenko to his promises to give way to a new union with Russia, or yield the northern neighbor more control over strategic Belarusian assets such as energy pipelines.

Yielding control over Belarus's lucrative energy assets could pose doom to Lukashenko's grip on power. Some say it is unlikely that he would allow for these assets to be privatized or handed over, which likely explains why Kremlin officials are betting less on him now than they did in the past.

An ever more desperate Lukashenko is unlikely to get away with violations and abuses which kept him in power in the past. For one, the media attention on the plight for democracy and freedom in Belarus is rising, largely thanks to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which made headlines for weeks in 2004, drawing attention to the region like never before.

True, the various opposition candidates do not appear to have more voter support than Lukashenko for now. But their popularity inside Belarus is rising as support for Lukashenko falls.

Lukashenko finds himself cornered and his time is winding down.

Some expect Lukashenko to once again fudge the vote for the first vote ensuring he has near 70 percent voter support.

But this is a big risk, as dwindling support for him and rising oppositionist sentiment could spark massive protests that could trigger his ouster, or further fuel the oppositionist movement in the country.

Lukashenko will likely declare his "elegant victory" after the first round of the elections, be it through a fraudulent exaggerated poll or a slim majority. With growing support for the opposition, he cannot afford to face a second round.

It may be too late to win the struggle for democratic forces on March 19, but a new political movement capable of becoming Lukashenko's alternative has, nevertheless, emerged. If Lukashenko decides to announce the official results of the vote with a margin of victory in his favor that is too large, he may loose control over Belarusian society.

Even if he slips through the polls with a slim victory in the first round, oppositionists will grow more confident as will voters who favor them but fear the consequences of challenging the regime.

This election is likely the first step toward a change of the regime.

Balazs Jarabik, a Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Civic Democracy with the Bratislava-based Pontis Foundation, has been active in supporting democratic development in Belarus.