From Jeremy Page in Minsk
SHOULDERS hunched against the cold, the middle-aged man stepped out from behind a lamppost in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and made his furtive proposition.
"Bicycle?" he whispered, as though offering marijuana or a peep show. Such is the fate of the Minsk Bicycle and Motorcycle Factory, once a titan of Soviet industry, now a testament to the economic decay of Europe's last dictatorship.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, this plant was churning out 860,000 bicycles and 230,000 motorcycles a year, including the iconic 125cc "Minsk". Fifteen years on, it still produces many of the same models, frozen in time by Aleksandr Lukashenko, the President who resurrected Soviet-style central planning after he took power in 1994.
Except that today no one wants to buy them. Starved of investment, the bicycles are so shoddy that when one was presented to the President on the plant's 55th anniversary, it collapsed underneath him.
So the workers have taken to stealing them and selling them at a discount on the street to supplement their meagre salaries. It is a fitting, if depressing, metaphor for the state of Belarus - a nation of ten million people caught in a Soviet time warp on the borders of the EU.
Mr Lukashenko, 51, promises to preserve this living museum if he wins another five-year term in an election tomorrow.
There is no doubt that the former collective farm manager will win - probably with 70 to 80 per cent of the vote.
"Anything less would make him look weak," Aleksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, said. He is calling for opposition supporters to rally in central Minsk tomorrow to hear the "real results". But even he does not expect more than a few thousand to turn up.
Mr Lukashenko's grip on power is based largely on his control of the media and the electoral process, and the pervasive presence of the KGB, which retains its Soviet-era acronym.
Four of his most prominent critics disappeared five years ago. Dozens of others have been jailed since. And the KGB says that opposition supporters could face the death penalty for protesting tomorrow.
In a televised address last night Mr Lukashenko threatened to stifle any disorder on election day. "God forbid that they dare to do something here," he said. "We will break the neck immediately - like a duckling's."
But the strange thing is that Mr Lukashenko is genuinely popular, especially in the countryside and among the elderly.
"He's a regular, hard-working guy," said Vasily Ribakov, 80, from Aleksandriya, 250 miles (400km) east of Minsk. "We live well, pensions are paid on time, we've enough to eat. How can we trust the Opposition?" Aleksandriya is perhaps an extreme example: Mr Lukashenko was born here and the villagers are proud of their local hero. The Ribakovs, however, are typical of many rural families. Mr Ribakov lives in a state-owned cottage and receives a state pension of $200 (?114) a month. His daughter, Galina, works in the state-run village shop, where all prices are fixed by the State.
The family reads state newspapers, watches state television and listens to state radio. They have never left Belarus. "What more could we want?" Galina asked, offering an anaemic ham sandwich and a plastic cup of instant coffee.
Belarussians may have missed out on the economic benefits enjoyed by their neighbours in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania - all now EU members. But they have also avoided the turmoil that engulfed their other neighbours, Russia and Ukraine, during the 1990s.
The desire for stability is powerful, and Mr Lukashenko exploits it by portraying the outside world as a dangerous place plagued by unemployment, poverty and terrorism. "Our country has neither interethnic nor interdenominational conflicts," he said recently. "There are no wars and there's a place for everyone. So, what is bad in Belarus?" Wages and pensions may be low, he argues, but they are rising and always paid on time.
This theoretical Utopia relies on an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion in annual subsidies from Moscow, mostly in the form of cheap oil and gas. Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, wants to raise the price of its gas, a move that could spell disaster for Belarus's industry. Its main exports are facing fierce competition from Asian manufacturers, even within their main market, Russia.
In a sign of things to come, workers at the Minsk Bicycle and Motorcycle Factory protested in November about unpaid wages. "We used to be proud to work here," one worker said. "Now, it's a bad joke."