Q&A: how Belarus became a Soviet museum

Jeremy Page, Moscow Correspondent for The Times, says that Alexander Lukashenko, the hardline President likely to win Sunday's elections in Belarus, has spent 12 years turning his country into a fossilised relic of the Soviet Union.

What is Mr Lukashenko's background?

He is a former prison guard and collective farm manager. In the early 1990s he was considered a bit of a reformer and even a democrat. He was part of a group of young politicians who helped to form an independent Belarus after the Soviet Union collapsed. The elections that brought him to power in 1994 were reasonably free and fair, and people genuinely thought he was going to be good for the country. He won on an anti-corruption platform, at a time when everything from the old Soviet Union was being sold off for a song. People didn't realise what they were getting hold of when they elected him.

What has happened to Belarus under his rule?

Pretty soon afterwards he started tightening the screws. Over the next few years he filled Parliament with his own allies. He clamped down on the independent media, and he started harrassing and detaining political opponents.

By 1998 it was clear that he was not a democrat at all, and his ultimate goal was total control of the country. As well as imposing political controls he also resurrected a Soviet-style command economy, and convinced himself that he had found a kind of third way, that will allow the economy to grow without exposing it to the kind of shock therapy that Russia has had to endure. In reality, the economy is propped up by subsidies from Moscow.

So he has turned the country into a weird museum to the former Soviet Union. About 90 per cent of people work for the state, and there is very little private property or enterprise. The place runs OK. Salaries and pensions are really low, but they are paid on time. There's no-one really poor, but there's no-one really rich. He is popular among people in the countryside and amongst the elderly, as their pensions are paid and increase every year.

Mr Lukashenko exploits people's fear at the thought of the political and economic instability in Russia. State television is full of long documentaries about how awful things are in Russia and Poland, so many people feel they have it good and that Mr Lukashenko is protecting them from chaos.

He is not unique as an authoritarian ruler in a former Soviet state - you have only to look at Karimov in Uzbekistan or Nyazov in Turkmenistan. He is unique in the lengths to which he will go to stifle opposition, and in his belief in Soviet-style economic policies. In that, Belarus is comparable only to Cuba and North Korea.

What is the President's record on democracy and human rights?

He has closed pretty much every independent media outlet. There has been a big crackdown on NGOs, particularly pro-democracy ones since the popular uprisings in Ukraine and Georgia.

Parliament is largely a rubber stamp that approves his proposals. He personally controls the military, the police and the secret police, which are still called the KGB - he kept the old name. For the last couple of years, anyone involved in the opposition has been regularly beaten up, harrassed, arrested and thrown in jail for short periods.

The most egregious case happened five years ago, when four very prominent opposition figures disappeared. The cases remain unsolved and they are referred to in Belarus as the Disappearances.

Opposition supporters say they were assassinated by death squads under the command of Mr Lukashenko. They have become a rallying point for the opposition in recent months. Their cases were highlighted when President Bush met two of the widows in the White House, a move which as you can imagine went down very badly in Minsk.

Why is the KGB chief warning of a possible coup during Sunday's election? Surely there is no danger Lukashenko will lose?

These statements suggest that they are extremely paranoid about people using street protests to start a popular uprising. But it is much more sinister than that.

Most people I have spoken to don't think that there is any danger of large protests, let alone a protest movement. By warning now that protesters will be treated as terrorists, he is laying out the legal basis for cracking down very hard. It is almost tantamount to declaring martial law, saying that there is a real threat to national security, and anyone found out on the streets is likely to be dealt with extremely harshly.

There is no doubt that he will win. Most of the Western observers will probably criticise the poll, because he hasn't bothered even to lay the ground for what would normally be considered free and fair elections, as the candidates don't have equal access to the media, and haven't been given equal opportunities to canvass and meet voters.

But there will be almost as many observers from former Soviet countries and those with close links to Belarus, who will will say that the election was fine, thus allowing him to claim that international observers declared the election was free and fair.