Belarus opposition expects rigged poll

By Stefan Wagstyl, east Europe editor, in Moscow

The authorities in Belarus are preparing to crack down on any protests that might follow Sunday's presidential elections in which president Alexander Lukashenko is expected to secure a landslide victory.

Amid mounting tensions in Minsk and growing international concern about possible violence, opposition leaders have declared they expect the vote to be rigged and have called on their supporters to protest peacefully in the city centre Sunday evening if the results do turn out to be fraudulent.

There is growing international concern about possible violence. The head of the KGB, Belarusian state security service, warned that any demonstrators who took to the streets tomorrow could be charged with terrorism and accused opposition leaders of plotting to organise a coup with foreign support. "We will not allow the seizure of power under the guise of of presidential elections, " said Stepan Sukhorenko, the KGB chief.

Mr Lukashenko, who is has been condemned in the west as Europe's last dictator, has ruled his country of 10m people wedged between Poland and Russia since 1994 and is seeking a third term. He has kept the country country stable with Soviet-style controls. He claims credit for recent economic growth whilst keeping quiet about approximately $4bn in subsidies that come annually from Russia in the form of cheap gas and oil.

Mr Lukashenko has reinforced his position by suppressing the independent media and intimidating the opposition. Despite the threats, the opposition last autumn united behind a single candidate - Alexander Milinkevich, a mild-mannered university professor. Later, a third man , Alexander Kozulin, an academic with connections with both the Lukashenko administration and the opposition, entered the fray as an opposition candidate.

Opinion polls conducted this month by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a Belarusian think tank, forecast Mr Lukashenko would genuinely win about 58 percent of the vote. However, opposition activists estimate that Mr Lukashenko might be awarded 80 per cent through fraudulent manipulation to give him an overwhelming victory.

Mr Lukashenko has Moscow's support for his strategy, although Kremlin officials worry about the risk of serious bloodshed. The Belarusian leader has no intention of following Ukraine's president Leonid Kuchma whose regime was brought down in the Orange Revolution that brought opposition leader, Victor Yushchenko, to power.

Mr Yushchenko himself faces an electoral challenge in next weekend's parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Opinion polls predict the winner will be the Party of the Regions, led by Victor Yanukovich, the loser in the disputed 2004 presidential poll. Splits among Orange Revolution leaders and disappointment with Mr Yushchenko's rule have played into Mr Yanukovich's hands. But he is unlikely to secure a majority and Orange Revolution parties could still form the next government if they can bury their differences.