Europe's last dictatorship? Just grin and bear it

( Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)The presidential election in Belarus on Sunday will be neither free nor fair. But unlike the rigged poll in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004, it is unlikely to lead to a democratic revolutionand there is little the West can do to dislodge the country's egomaniacal president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka

ACCORDING to the KGB, as Belarus's security service is still known, foreign-backed terrorists are planning to stage a coup in Minsk, the capital, after the presidential election on Sunday March 19th. According to supporters of the main opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevic, they intend only to protest the rigging of the vote by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, known in the West as Europe's last dictator. As in Ukraine last winter, the post-election protests will likely be accompanied by critical western assessments of the counting. But the outcome is unlikely to be another democratic revolution.

With his egomaniacal gestures, his moustache, comb-over hairstyle and oddly squeaky voice, Mr Lukashenka might almost be funny?were he not also a brutal autocrat. Formerly the manager of a collective farm, he was elected president, on an anti-corruption ticket, in 1994. He quickly set about ensuring that the relatively honest vote that brought him to power would be his country's last. In 1996, a rigged referendum extended his presidential term and neutered parliament. In 2004, another fixed plebiscite changed the constitution to let him remain president indefinitely.

But the worst abuses of Mr Lukashenka's presidency came between the referendums, in 1999-2000, when two politicians, plus a businessman and a journalist, disappeared; others vanished too, some allege. That is, the worst abuses until now. As the election approaches, the screws have tightened. Training people for street protests, and discrediting the country abroad, are now illegal. Dissident students have been dismissed from universities. People have been arrested simply for holding candles in public, a silent protest staged on the 16th of each month, the date of two disappearances. A stream of opposition activists, including some of Mr Milinkevic's top aides, have been arrested in the past few weeks. The media has been utterly suborned.

That is one difference from Ukraine, where Viktor Yushchenko, now the president, enjoyed at least some favourable coverage during his election campaign and the subsequent stand-off. Another is the more certain prospect, in Belarus, of violence. There was a foretaste of it on March 2nd, when Alyaksandr Kozulin, another opposition candidate?learning from Ukraine, most opposition factions have united behind Mr Milinkevic?was assaulted, along with several supporters and journalists.

To a politician like Mr Lukashenka, all this counts as legitimate campaigning. Another mark of his Soviet mindset is that only an overwhelming victory will do. A fraud-facilitating system of early voting, plus one-sided electoral commissions, should ensure that he gets one. But the truth is that Mr Lukashenka could probably do without all the ballot-stuffing. So saturated by propaganda is Belarus that, even if the counting were honest, he would almost certainly win.

A big part of the president's appeal is negative: as he and the media constantly reiterate, in Belarus there has been no post-Soviet war, and no terrorism. But, in fairness, Mr Lukashenka has had some positive achievements?foremost among them being the so-called Belarusian economic miracle. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarus has received vanishingly little foreign investment, and privatised little. Taxes are high by regional standards. Ancient heavy industries and collective farms are propped up by subsidies; the president sets targets and berates his ministers on television if numbers disappoint. And up to a point, it appears to work. Official unemployment is 1.5% (though some say there is much hidden joblessness). Other ex-Soviet countries are still poorer than they were under communism; Belarus is richer. The statist economy is also Mr Lukashenka's main mechanism of political control. State employees work to one-year contracts, and are liable to be fired if they rebel, or refuse to sign pro-presidential petitions.

Revolutions can happen in divided nations, as events in Ukraine proved. There Mr Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovich, the regime-backed candidate whom eastern and southern Ukraine overwhelmingly supported (and still do, as the parliamentary elections on March 26th will show). Like Ukraine, which had almost never been an independent state until 1991, the land that is now Belarus was always dominated by other powers: Russia, but also Poland and the old Duchy of Lithuania.

But the part of its history that seems to have most shaped the sensibility of Belarus are the wars that have been fought across its invitingly flat land. The second world war killed around a third of Belarus's population. Before and after it, Stalin's purges were severe. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, in 1986, contaminated a fifth of the country. The legacy of this wretchedness is the powerful third force of Belarusian politics: a sort of apathetic adaptability, which is as quietly evident in the villages as the pro-Lukashenka enthusiasm.

Revolutions need money: somebody paid for the floodlights and free food in Kiev. In Belarus, there are no oligarchs to bankroll the opposition

Understanding this legacy, Mr Milinkevic emphasises the peacefulness of his campaign. But Mr Lukashenka understands it too. And he allies the allegations of coup plots and terrorism that he levels against the opposition with another old complex: anti-Americanism. America, which has labeled Belarus an outpost of tyranny, would indeed like to see Mr Lukashenka dislodged. But it has little influence in Belarus; the European Union has more, but not much. Recent history has shown that, to help democratic forces in post-Soviet countries, the West needs both the means and the motives to do so. In Ukraine, it had both; while the role of foreigners there has been over-estimated, they did help to prevent violence. In Azerbaijan, whose government rigged a parliamentary vote last year, energy considerations trumped democracy-building. In Belarus, there is little the West can do, however much it wants to.

There is, however, a country that can do much more. Belarus?and Mr Lukashenka?actually subsist on cheap Russian gas, having been spared the price hikes recently imposed on Russia's other neighbours. Belarus also imports Russian crude for lucrative refining, and exports products to Russia that would struggle to find markets elsewhere. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, could probably defenestrate Mr Lukashenka if he wanted to. And there have been signs that he might want to: in 2004, after the Belarusian leader irked the Kremlin, Russia briefly turned off the gas. But Mr Putin doesn't like revolutions, nor intrusions into what he considers Russia's sphere of influence, and an important buffer between it and the NATO military alliance.

The good news is that, young (51) as he is, and theoretically entitled though he is to remain president indefinitely, Mr Lukashenka's regime is unsustainable. His elderly supporters are dying; in the internet age, and with democratic neighbours to the west, his information blockade must crumble. The Belarusian miracle also cannot last. Mr Milinkevic says that the newly united opposition will stay together until victorywhich they are hoping will come next week.

Ukraine showed that, during a stand-off, the capital city is crucial. Mr Milinkevic is popular in Minsk, and word-of-mouth will let its residents know what is happening, even if television doesn't. But another was that revolutions need money: somebody paid for the floodlights and free food in Kiev. In Belarus, there are no oligarchs to bankroll the opposition. Probably the key lesson, however, is that numbers are all-important: 5,000?or, as happened in Azerbaijan, even 15,000?people can be violently dispersed; 50,000 are a different proposition. Much will depend on how many Belarusians are willing to brave the KGB and riot police in Minsk.