In Belarus, regime's win at polls appears imminent

Opposition unlikely to unseat Lukashenko

September 09, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MINSK, Belarus - Europe's last dictator faces the voters today in an election so weighted in his favor and so ripe for fraud that the only thing in doubt might be whether his opponents will quietly concede.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has managed to reverse democratic reforms and turn his country back into a totalitarian state. People here have been beaten and jailed for peaceful protests. Newspapers critical of the regime have been raided by the tax police, burglarized repeatedly or simply closed by the authorities. In the past few years, four of Lukashenko's foes have disappeared and are presumed dead.

And Lukashenko is favored to win election today to a new five-year term despite the opposition's showing signs of growing strength. The state-controlled media have lavished attention on the president. Typical television fare was last night's prime-time program on a subway station that Lukashenko had ordered renovated. He is prominent in every night's newscast.

In a special free edition delivered to hundreds of thousands of homes in Minsk, the state-controlled Sovietskaya Belorussiya accused international election monitors of working with United States intelligence agencies to depose him.

The leading opposition candidate is Vladimir Goncharik, a 61-year-old trade union leader. When he and the other opposition figures were not being vilified by government media, they were ignored. Each was allotted only two half-hour programs on state television with camera operators assigned by the government.

The candidates were also forced to abide by a $13,000 ceiling on campaign spending. Many of their campaign posters were ripped down by police.

Goncharik accused Lukashenko of tying to steal the election. "I appeal to the international community to do their best to stop this terrible cheating and prevent the seizure of power," he said last night.

A senior European diplomat acknowledged that Lukashenko has eliminated ordinary protections against electoral fraud. The government has, for example, allowed early balloting in selected areas, with the ballots sitting around in boxes for days with no monitors around.

Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck, the German who is head of the permanent mission here of the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe, expressed concern that Lukashenko and Goncharik will claim victory today. "That may lead to clashes," he said.

Lukashenko, 47, who once ran a collective chicken farm, is a tall, square-shouldered man with what acquaintances say is a fiery temper. After winning the 1994 election with 80 percent of the vote, he quickly moved to renationalize key industries. He hand-picked a new parliament, extended his term by two years and stripped the judiciary of its modest independence. "He became used to power that knows no bounds," said Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank based in Moscow.

In the late 1990s, some of Lukashenko's critics and rivals began disappearing. Russian television aired a videotape last month of two men who identified themselves as former officers in Belarus' security organization. The two said they had abducted businessman Anatoly Krassofsky along with a prominent politician outside a public bathhouse in 1999, driven the two men to a forest outside a military base and shot them. The Lukashenko regime has shown little interest in investigating the case.

"I have one goal, and that is to find my husband," said Krassof- sky's wife, Irina, as she helped lead a protest across the street from Lukashenko's main office Friday. She was one of about 30 demonstrators holding poster-sized photographs of the missing and detained - including a 24-year-old woman, now in solitary confinement, who was arrested last week and accused of slandering the president.

Ludmilla Grasnova, another protester, was a member of the Belarus parliament in 1995, when Lukashenko dissolved it and replaced it with one he controls.

"The repression will be greater, maybe," if Lukashenko is re-elected, she said as a group of what appeared to be plainclothes police stood across the street and filmed the scene. "Maybe there will be new disappearances, because this is the meaning of dictatorship."

About 10 million people live in Belarus, a land of marshes, pine-and-birch forests and farms that roll to the horizon. A decade after the collapse of the Communist system elsewhere, many Belarussians continue to work on collective farms or in the nationalized factories that make tractors, automobiles and televisions.

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