Quiet fear in Minsk on eve of elections

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / MINSK - A quiet sense of fear is building in Minsk on the eve (18 March) of presidential elections on Sunday, in one of the EU's most problematic neighbours, Belarus.

Ten thousand or more opposition campaigners plan to march to October Square, beside the presidential palace at 20:00 Minsk time on Sunday, to react to official election results, due at midnight.

The city is quiet on Saturday, with elegantly-dressed women walking dogs past smart shops in the monumental Soviet-era buildings and children eating noisily in McDonalds in the city centre.

But behind the scenes tension is mounting, with state-owned Belarusian mobile phone company Velkom at noon sending out an SMS message to all subscribers, including EU embassy staff, warning of "bloodshed" in October Square and telling people to stay away "if you value your health."

The news comes after the head of the Belarus secret service, the KGB, on Thursday said on national TV that protestors will be treated as "terrorists" who will face the "maximum penalty."

The statement came on top of repeated government warnings that the opposition plans to detonate bombs among its own supporters on Sunday to provoke an international crisis.

Opposition candidates Alexander Millinkevich and Alexander Kazulin pledged at political rallies in the Elektron and Kiev cinemas on Friday and Saturday that they will use peaceful means of protest only.

Meanwhile, train and bus tickets to Minsk have stopped being sold with police road checks expected on Sunday on top of internet and mobile phone disruption to prevent opposition coordination.

"My husband is going to October Square, and this time his friends are going with him," 26 year old mother of one, Alina, told EUobserver on Friday. "But I will not be able to rest until he comes back."

EU not well informed

High-ranking EU diplomats stationed in Minsk say the atmosphere surrounding the vote is more tense than in the referendum of 2004 or presidential elections in 2001, due to the spectacle of Mr Millinkevich gaining some 30 percent of the vote in just four months of heavily-obstructed campaigning.

But many EU capitals and the European Commission are badly informed about the gravity of the situation in Belarus, with just 11 out of 25 member states and no commission staff permanently stationed in Minsk, the contact indicated.

President Lukashenko has appeared "tense" and "worried" during face-to-face meetings with EU ambassadors in the past few days.

"He has let the genie out of the bottle," one western diplomat said about the opposition momentum, which is set to be strengthened by long-term economic trends.

Despite headline economic growth of almost 10 percent a year, economic tension is on the rise with most people struggling to live on $50-150 a month and the spectre of steep gas price hikes next year.

Many older and working class voters genuinely support president Lukashenko, who would scoop over 50 percent of the vote in a fair election independent analysts say.

And Sunday's opposition marches are expected to be broken up by police before they amass in October Square.

But the new-found confidence of the opposition movement is beginning to ring alarm bells in the presidential palace, with events on Sunday having the potential to start a slow wave of change on the political scene.

OSCE mission has limited scope

OSCE observers will probably monitor ballot box counting from a distance of ten metres only on Sunday, while the official result "protocols" sent from polling stations to Minsk can be easily doctored, EU diplomats said.

The OSCE's preliminary judgment on the elections, which could trigger new diplomatic sanctions from Brussels and Washington, is due by 15:00 Minsk time on Monday, with a negative result that "does not mince its words" expected.

Diplomats and NGOs say the real crackdown on Mr Millinkevich and his supporters, such as long-term jail sentences, will begin on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the dozens of election-time TV crews from the UK, Japan and China leave the country in its old, largely forgotten state.

"I dream of Belarus as a sort of east European Switzerland, neutral, a bridge between Russia and Europe with many businesses and banks," 27 year-old Belarusian politics student Vasyl told EUobserver.

"But I don't think this will come soon," he said.