Tensions loom ahead of Belarus vote



MINSK, Belarus -- Tension loomed over a presidential election Sunday in Belarus despite a near certain victory for hard-line incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, the latest leader on Russia's periphery to face a potentially explosive confrontation with opponents desperate for change.

After the revolutions that have swept three former Soviet republics following disputed elections, opposition suspicions of fraud could make Belarus the fourth to be convulsed by protests and the threat of a forceful state response.

Underlying the election is an atmosphere of Cold War confrontation pitting Belarus and Russia against the West, which is seen by Lukashenko's government and its backers in Moscow as a chief culprit in the political upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Lukashenko has accused Western countries of plotting a repeat here. While Russia's relations with Belarus are sometimes strained, the Kremlin is wary of losing its only ally between its western border and NATO countries, and has signaled approval of a Lukashenko victory.

The United States, meanwhile, has forged close ties with the beleaguered opposition and made no secret of its disdain for the ruler of what the Bush administration calls an outpost of tyranny in Europe. It has condemned the campaign as "seriously flawed and tainted."

While Lukashenko is a dictator to his opponents and foreign critics, muzzling the media and stifling dissent during 12 years of authoritarian rule, many Belarusians cherish the leader who likes to be known as "Batka" - Father.

Even independent polls suggest he could win outright with a majority of the vote, avoiding a run-off. Lukashenko, who pushed through a referendum scrapping term limits and has hinted he plans to stay in office indefinitely, portrays himself as indispensable.

"What can you do? You will elect me," he told a crowd last fall.

Supporters see Lukashenko, 51, as having brought stability after the uncertainties and suffering that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse. While the landlocked nation, about as big and flat as Kansas, is far from prosperous, the economy is growing and salaries are rising.

"He has been a successful leader, so let him stay in power - at least until he gets old," said Vitaly Musel, 27, a university administrator in the southeastern city of Mozyr.

Critics say the economic successes are unsustainable, based largely on cheap Russian energy and heavy-handed state intervention reminiscent of the communist era, when he was a collective farm manager.

The Soviet past is strongly palpable in Belarus. The government makes five-year plans, the main state newspaper has "Soviet" in its title and the state security service is officially called the KGB.

Since his first election in 1994, Lukashenko has silenced foes and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by the opposition and Western governments. Four opponents disappeared in 1999-2000.

"People are scared," said Zhanna, 40, a Mozyr teacher who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. Interviewed at a rally for the main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, she said she didn't trust Lukashenko and wanted him out.

In Minsk, the quiet atmosphere on the broad, clean avenues could be shattered Sunday. After a campaign marred by arrests of opposition activists and blatantly biased media coverage, Milinkevich has called on Belarusians to protest peacefully. The government has banned election day rallies, setting the stage for a showdown.

Fearing the kind of protests that helped bring opposition leaders to power in other ex-Soviet republics, the state has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations aimed to frighten people off the streets Sunday.

On Thursday, the KGB chief accused the opposition of plotting to seize power with foreign help by detonating bombs and sowing chaos on election day, and warned that protesters could be charged with terrorism.

Subscribers to the country's biggest cell phone service provider received text messages on the eve of the vote warning that "provocateurs are planning bloodshed" Sunday evening at Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk, where protesters are expected to try to gather.

Milinkevich dismissed the messages and the claims of a coup plot as part of a government scare strategy aimed to discredit opponents and justify the potential use of force against protesters.

He urged supporters to be wary of provocations and suggested protesters would not try to force their way onto the square.

"We will come out with flowers, we will come out peacefully, without any violence," Milinkevich told several hundred supporters Saturday outside a movie theater, part of a final push in a campaign he acknowledges he won't win.

Ignored or attacked by state media, his rallies often banned or disrupted, the 58-year-old former physicist says he is out to show the country that change is possible - and imperative.

"We have defeated the apathy, but it is hard for us to conquer the fear," he said last week.

Milinkevich said more than 300 opposition supporters have been detained ahead of the election, some jailed until after election day. Authorities have seized the print runs of independent newspapers and barred at least a dozen European election observers from the country.

On Saturday, police with machine guns ordered the evacuation of a building housing offices of an opposition party, and Associated Press photographers saw several people driven away in a police car. A member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission accompanied them to monitor their treatment.

The authorities have sought to whip up anti-Western sentiment, with state-run media airing reports accusing the United States of sending tents meant for a protest camp like the one in Kiev during Ukraine's Orange Revolution. The KGB also sought to link Americans with an alleged takeover plot involving terrorist training in Georgia.

State media have fed voters a steady diet of Lukashenko, from an election address Friday in which he warned that foreigners seeking to destabilize Belarus would have their necks broken "like a duckling's" to a pop performance hailing "Batka" as "strict but fair" and "cooler than all the rest."

Also running are Alexander Kozulin, an opposition candidate who was beaten up by security agents earlier this month, and Sergei Gaidukevich, widely viewed as a Lukashenko loyalist meant to legitimize the election.


Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report.