Alexander Lukashenko's regime has been criticised by the West for closing

down independent media, intimidating opponents and rigging elections since he first came to power in 1994- three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lukashenko has called his rivals Western-funded troublemakers and draft dodgers.

Yesterday he hit back at longstanding U.S. allegations that Belarus was Europe's "last dictatorship."

"We will not answer to anyone. I would like you to remember that we've organised the vote for ourselves. You will see that in the end the people are the real masters in our country. It's up to them to decide who'll be President."

A supporter of a "union state" with Russia, Lukashenko backs strong governmentintervention in the economy.

He is genuinely popular among many Belarussians particularly with those who live in the countryside and the elderly, who refer to him as "Batka" or father.

He's boasted that he's offered stability and relative prosperity compared to other ex-Soviet states.