'Wooden fence' may become an iron curtain

By Adrian Blomfield in Minsk

President Alexander Lukashenko's tirades against the West sometimes sound as though they were taken from the speeches of North Korea's Kim Jong-il.

With the continued backing of Russia, the threat of sanctions and an asset-freeze if Sunday's polls are rigged are unlikely to perturb him. Barring a last-minute upset, he should win about 75 per cent of the vote.

Assuming that he is not toppled by popular protests, the future of Europe's most-repressed people does not look good. At a time when freedom of travel throughout most of Europe is greater than ever, Mr Lukashenko is planning to pull up the drawbridge of its most isolated backwater.

A recent law threatening those who "discredit the reputation of Belarus abroad" with prison could be followed by a ban on foreign travel. "Lukashenko is trying to shut the doors and black out the windows," said a senior Western diplomat. "Once he's got through the elections, he'll take the final steps, making [Belarus] a totalitarian regime."

"It's not an iron curtain yet," said Anatol Hrytskevich, one of Belarus's most-respected historians. "But you can already see the wooden fence."