By Lisa McAdams
Belarussians are to elect a president Sunday in a race western governments and human rights groups say is flawed due to wide-scale harassment of opposition activists and an almost total lack of free media. Incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected to win a third term. He faces three other candidates, including the leader of a now unified political opposition.
Incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko says he expects to win Sunday's race without effort. But tensions are at a fever pitch with another arrest of a high-profile political figure.
The arrest of opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich's top aide Wednesday prompted the United States to reiterate its grave concern about the latest crackdown on opposition rivals. Meanwhile, Western election monitors have been expelled from Belarus in recent days, while others have been refused visas.
Speaking last month at election commission headquarters in the capital, Minsk, President Lukashenko made a veiled warning to the West. He said the people of Belarus would elect the country's next president, without pressure from the outside.
Mr. Lukashenko, who has headed the former Soviet Republic since 1994, has been branded as Europe's last dictator by the United States and isolated diplomatically. He accuses the west of fomenting the political revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and of aiming to make it happen again in Belarus.
Less than a month before the election, President Lukashenko urged his defense and interior ministries, as well as the security service to, "act ahead of the west and the opposition". In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds of opposition leaders were rounded up on what independent rights groups say are questionable charges.
But perhaps the most spectacular turn of events came when the head of the state security service announced a foiled coup plot by the opposition.
Stepan Suhorenko says according to his agents, the alleged plotters had been planning to set off explosive devices during a mass rally in the middle of Minsk immediately after the election. He said the ensuing chaos was to be a signal to others to seize official buildings and railway stations, and to block rail lines in an effort to paralyze the state.
The leader of the unified opposition, Alexander Milinkevich, denies plans for mass protests or political revolution. He says the opposition just wants to see the authorities provide for free and fair elections.
Milinkevich holds an almost fatalistic view of the race and his admittedly slim chances. During a recent press conference in Moscow, he told reporters that conditions for the race are very unequal.
He also says Belarus has almost no independent press. That is why, he says Lukashenko is going to become president again, whether we like it or not.
Milinkevich says he is in the race to show the people of Belarus that there are other options for the future. He says, if elected, he will focus first and foremost on the economy in order to lift the country out of poverty and isolation.
The other two presidential candidates are Liberal Democratic Party leader Sergei Gaidukevich and Alexander Kozulin, of the Social Democratic Party
The Belarus Central Election Commission has accredited 240 international observers to monitor the March 19th presidential election, more than half of whom come from the Commonwealth of Independent States, or former Soviet Union states.
The main international election watchdog, the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has 50 pre-election monitors, who have expressed concern over what they call mounting human-rights violations in the final days of the campaign.
E.U. foreign ministers share similar concerns, saying the situation in Belarus with respect to democracy, human rights, and political freedoms is deteriorating.
Opposition leaders have called for peaceful protests if votes are counted fraudulently, but a government ban on any rallies on Sunday has set the stage for a potentially violent stand-off.