Europe's last dictator taunts the West

Belarusian sportsmen carry state flags during celebrations of a national festival marking the harvest in the town of Orsha, 200km (125 miles) northeast of Minsk last week. Photograph: Sergei Grits/APBelarusian sportsmen carry state flags during celebrations of a national festival marking the harvest in the town of Orsha, 200km (125 miles) northeast of Minsk last week. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

BELARUS: Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is taunting just about everyone prior to the general election, writes Daniel McLaughlin in Minsk

A WEEK before what could be a crucial general election, Belarus's authoritarian leader has vowed to sever ties with the West unless it recognises the poll as legitimate, and his opponents have resolved to take part in the vote despite expecting it to be rigged.

Keen to weaken Russia's grip on its neighbours and having detected a slight thaw in Belarus, the European Union and United States have pledged to improve ties with president Alexander Lukashenko and lift some sanctions on his regime if next Sunday's election is more free and fair than others he has overseen during 14 years in power.

Mr Lukashenko freed three opposition activists from jail last month and resisted Kremlin pressure to join it in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after a military campaign in Georgia which unnerved Belarus and Russia's other neighbours.

Mr Lukashenko has also been annoyed by Russia's demands for higher energy payments, its brief suspension of oil supplies last winter, and suggestions that Moscow may seek to dominate Minsk through the creation of a "union-state" linking the countries.

The man the US dubs "Europe's last dictator" warned, however, that he would not tolerate criticism from the West about the election, after international observers said campaigning was being "strictly controlled" by the authorities.

"If even this time the elections turn out to be 'undemocratic', we will halt all discussions with the West," he pledged at a provincial harvest festival in his ex-Soviet republic. "Let's just see how they react," the former Soviet state farm boss said.

"We have blatantly broken our own laws to hold an election the way it is understood by the West. This election is unprecedentedly free, run according to the rules of the West."

In characteristically brusque style, Mr Lukashenko (54) insisted that most of Belarus's 10 million people supported his regime and a parliament filled entirely by his allies.

"If we had the kind of problems we used to, when we lacked for meat and bread and salaries were less than $20, then yes, the people's mood would have been seething. Not all issues have been resolved, but people see that they are being tackled, and so they trust the regime."

Saying parliament had no need for "blatherers", Mr Lukashenko called the opposition a divided group with a level of popular support "equivalent to a margin of error". "It would be good if some of them won , and maybe they will. Let the people decide . . . But how will people vote for them if they are always criticising the authorities?"

Divided by ideology, enthusiasm for stronger ties with the West or with Russia, and disagreements over how to challenge Mr Lukashenko, Belarus's opposition has never posed a serious threat to his complete control in either presidential or parliamentary elections.

He is by far Belarus's most popular politician, due not only to the failings of his opponents, but to years of economic growth fuelled by cheap Russian energy, stability ensured by the sprawling KGB security service and media which lavish him with positive coverage.

The opposition achieved rare unity at a meeting in central Minsk yesterday, where they agreed to run in the election despite being barred from the commissions which will oversee the vote-count.

"We propose that our candidates carry on to the end while producing evidence of vote-rigging," said Anatoly Lebedko of the United Civic Party. "Naturally, if it turns out that the election is not legitimate, we will ask our followers to protest peacefully."

Leading opposition figure Vintsuk Vechorko told The Irish Times that his Belarusian Popular Front party would stay in the election to provide monitors with proof of irregularities.

"We are going to focus our resources on 30 main districts, to which we will invite international observers," he said. "But the electoral commissions are the castle which is most strongly defended by the authorities. They cannot imagine not having full control of the electoral commissions. We have been denied access to them even at the lowest level."

At a campaign speech in a Minsk suburb, attended by only about 30 people, former presidential candidate Alexander Milinkevich said there were signs this election was slightly less tightly controlled than previous ones under Mr Lukashenko.

"It was a big step for Lukashenko to release the prisoners last month, and our supporters are not being arrested, and we can arrange places to meet voters, unlike in other election campaigns," he said.

"But the country is silent. There is no discussion in society, in the media or parliament, where they raise and lower their hands to order," he said in a small meeting hall, where a picture of Mr Lukashenko glowered from one wall.

"We may get a few seats in parliament this time - if Lukashenko appoints them."



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