Minsk (Belarus): Few doubt that President Alexander Lukashenko — often called the last dictator in Europe — will be declared the winner of Sunday`s election in Belarus. Still, the campaign has underlined his increasingly tenuous position.
Lukashenko faces energized opponents who have campaigned with unusual freedom — by Belarus` repressive standards at least — and who are already planning mass protests against what they are sure will be a falsified vote tally. A crackdown on protests would likely torpedo Lukashenko`s incremental efforts to mend fences with the West, but allowing them to continue could risk creating an irresistible opposition.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko is the longest-standing current leader in Europe. Once regarded as the Kremlin`s obedient if loudmouthed ally, in recent years he has been often truculent toward Moscow, even alleging that Russia is financing his opponents.
His complaints became so vehement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publicly dressed him down, calling his statements "downright indecent."
Both Moscow and the European Union are offering Lukashenko huge economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction. The election results could hint to where Lukashenko sees his long-term advantage.
Signs that he`s leaning Westward would be a moral victory for countries that have long criticized his harsh rule and worried about his connections with vehemently anti-West regimes. For Russia, a return to the fold would bolster Moscow`s desire to remain the power-broker in former Soviet regions.
Since Lukashenko came to power, Belarus has been isolated from the flood of changes transforming its neighbors. While Russia to the east strutted with privatization and new wealth, Belarus retained a clumsy quasi-Soviet economy, with 80 percent of industry still under state control. To the west and south, the Baltics and Poland basked in free media and the messy issues of democracy, but Belarus kept almost total state control of media and gave only lip service to pluralism.
None of the country`s elections under Lukashenko have met international standards of freedom and fairness — the most recent, in 2008, left parliament without a single opposition member.
Belarus is also the last country in Europe to carry out executions, Soviet-style with a pistol shot to the back of the head.
And in an echo of the Cold War, Lukashenko has assiduously cultivated relations with some of the West`s most adamant foes, particularly Venezuela`s President Hugo Chavez.
Unproven speculation abounds that Belarus is a conduit for illegal arms shipments to Iran. He also defied the international community by giving sanctuary to Kyrgyzstan`s ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Yet for all his defiance, the 56-year-old Lukashenko has been plagued by a key weakness: Belarus depends on below-market Russian oil and gas to keep its economy alive. But in 2006, Russia began raising its prices and forced Belarus to cede a 50-percent share in its pipeline network.
Lukashenko saw the moves as an attempt to muscle him out or even absorb the country into Russia. Tentative steps to improve relations with the West began, including joining the European Union`s Eastern Partnership initiative. Relations with Russia deteriorated, and he infuriated the Kremlin by failing to recognize the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent after Russia`s 2008 war with Georgia.
However, Russia last week agreed to drop duties on oil, a concession worth some $4 billion.
"This agreement takes the intrigue out of the election and shows that Russia is prepared to recognize a Lukashenko victory," said Belarusian political analyst Andrei Fedorov.
But the EU is dangling the prospect of euro3 billion (USD 4 billion) in aid to Belarus if Sunday`s elections are assessed as free and fair. Though that appears to be a long shot, the campaign has been unusually open. Though Lukashenko dominates state media, the nine other candidates have been given debate time on state television and have conducted sizable rallies.
"This is, in a way, how he played Europe. This is what Europe wanted ... You cannot imagine that in today`s Russia nine presidential opposition candidates would be given access to state-owned media," said Arkady Moshes, an analyst with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and Britain`s Chatham House.
The main opposition candidates have focused on integration with Europe and moving to a market economy. But by failing to unite under a single candidate, they may inadvertently have bolstered Lukashenko`s confident control.
Lukashenko, in turn, tried to tar them with a strategy that once would have been unimaginable — accusing some including Vladimir Neklyayev and Andrei Sannikov of being financed by Russia. The former says the only Russian money he`s received is from Belarusian businessmen living there.
Neklyayev, a poet and leader of the Speak The Truth movement, and Sannikov, a former top diplomat, are seen as the top opposition vote-getters. But a survey last month by an independent think tank calculated that together their support is about 25 percent against Lukashenko`s 44 percent.
Lukashenko needs at least 50 percent for a first-round victory and expectations are wide that he will get it — either genuinely or by manipulation.
"The count is probably not be going to be fair and transparent," Moshes said, "But this is critical component: If he is declared as a winner who has won some 50 percent, that will look credible."
But if he tallies 75 percent or more, that could galvanize the opposition to brave the country`s frigid temperatures for long-term protests.