Belarus strongman leaves little to chance in election

By Alex Rodriguez

Tribune foreign correspondent

MINSK, Belarus -- President Alexander Lukashenko has used bugs, arrests and threats to marginalize the opposition in Sunday's vote in his Soviet-model nation. But liberal rival Alexander Milinkevich hopes supporters fill the streets after his defeat.

Here in the seat of what Washington calls Europe's last dictatorship, civic activists rarely shrug off the feeling of being watched as a twinge of paranoia.

For months, a group of young, idealistic Belarusians who wanted to assign observers to their country's presidential election Sunday knew that government agents were watching them. A listening device was found in their offices in Brest. Meetings they held were broken up by police just minutes after they began.

Undeterred, the group, known as Partnership, pressed on with plans to monitor the vote. On Feb. 21, security agents pounced once more. This time they raided the group's Minsk office and arrested four Partnership leaders at gunpoint. Prosecutors charged the four with plotting a coup, an accusation dismissed by civic activists and opposition leaders as fabricated.

"This is an attempt to intimidate Belarusians before the election, to make sure that no one entertains any notions about demonstrating in the streets," said Valery Dranchuk, whose son, Timofei, was one of the four leaders arrested.

In many ways, Belarus looks and feels like an outpost of Soviet-style governance left behind by the end of the Cold War. Four of every five Belarusians works for the state. The country's television networks are state-owned, and more than 100 independent newspapers have been shut down. The country's intelligence agency is known as the KGB.

Minsk's streets are lined with billboards and shop windows displaying Soviet-like homages to the state: a combine gleaning Belarusian wheat fields next to the words, "Prosper, Belarus!"; broad-shouldered workers in coveralls pictured above the caption "For Stability!"

All-powerful president

The architect of today's Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, controls every lever of government, from parliament to the police, from the courts to the country's Olympic committee. He has held on to power by taking aim at any challenge to his rule--real or imagined. Political opponents are routinely jailed. University students who attend political rallies find themselves expelled and blacklisted.

"Belarus is like the Soviet Union before it collapsed--strong power, a state-controlled economy, very little private property and very little economic freedom," said Leonid Zaika, political analyst for the Strategy Center in Minsk. "If no one intervenes from abroad, this can last at least 10 more years."

Lukashenko, 51 and a former collective farm chief, has been in power since 1994, when he won a presidential election widely regarded as free and fair.

Since then, critics have accused him of ensuring re-election through rigged votes. In 2004 he won a constitutional referendum that did away with presidential term limits and allowed him to run for a third term.

Branded authoritarian by Washington and governments in Western Europe, Lukashenko does enjoy a core of support in his country, in part because he controls what is seen and heard in Belarus but also because his centralized economy has buoyed the lives of most Belarusians.

Their salaries are modest by Western standards, but their paychecks come on time and have been growing steadily. Average monthly wages rose to $205 last year from $150 in 2004 . The country's gross domestic product has doubled since 2002. Official unemployment stands at 1.5 percent.

"We don't have crime here, the country is developing very well, so I'm satisfied with everything," said Nikolai Barkovich, 64, a retiree from Minsk. "We watch the news from America and Europe and we see what's going on in your countries. We don't have such a disgrace."

For much of his presidency, Lukashenko's iron-fisted rule went unnoticed by the rest of the world. But with the sweep of change brought on by popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Western governments--particularly the Bush administration--have shone a spotlight on Belarus.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year called Lukashenko's regime an "outpost of tyranny." Congress earmarked $11.8 million this year for developing democracy and civil society in Belarus, and $11.5 million in 2005. Earlier this month, David Kramer, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said the U.S. plans to continue "our work to help pro-democracy forces build support to push for change."

"Whatever happens in the upcoming election," Kramer told the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, "we intend to remain engaged in Belarus for a long time to come."

In recent weeks, Lukashenko has made clear his response: Belarusian police have arrested legions of opposition supporters and activists at rallies and gatherings, doling out jail terms long enough to keep some of the activists behind bars through the election.

More than 300 of those activists are loyal to Lukashenko's leading rival in Sunday's election, pro-democracy candidate Alexander Milinkevich, a physics professor and former deputy mayor of the western city of Grodno. Authorities have released opposition leader and Milinkevich ally Anatoly Lebedko, arrested Wednesday on charges of resisting police.

Also Wednesday, Belarusian authorities barred three members of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer team from entering the country.

A call to the streets

On a recent campaign trip, Milinkevich said he had little doubt that Lukashenko will be declared the winner by a landslide. But Belarus' future will be decided after the polls close, he said, when Belarusians decide whether to heed his call to demonstrate in Minsk's streets.

"It's a question of whether Belarusians have overcome their fear," Milinkevich said during an interview in his van as it headed for campaign stops in western Belarus' Brest region. "Do they believe they have a chance of changing something? This will be the main question."

Street demonstrations in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan led to the uprisings that toppled pro-Kremlin regimes.

Past demonstrations in Minsk have been dispersed by truncheon-wielding police. Authorities have vowed to crack down on any rallies held Sunday, and Lukashenko issued an even more ominous warning, promising that the country would be defended "to the last bullet."

Partnership had planned to deploy 3,000 observers at polling stations across Belarus, said Polina Astreiko, wife of jailed Partnership leader Nikolai Astreiko. The government's crackdown on the group has effectively scuttled those plans. Intelligence agents have been using Partnership member lists confiscated during raids to track down members and their parents, according to Valery Dranchuk and Polina Astreiko.

"They're intimidating them, threatening to fire them and their parents from jobs if they don't quit the group," Astreiko said.