Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko expressed confidence that he would win a fourth term in Sunday's election and harshly denounced a planned opposition rally as being led by "bandits and saboteurs."
Opposition candidates have planned a large demonstration on a central square in Minsk after polls close at 8 p.m (1800 GMT, 1 p.m. EST) to protest what they believe will be massive vote-rigging by Lukashenko's regime, often characterized as the last dictatorship in Europe.
Both Moscow and the European Union are closely monitoring the election, having offered major economic inducements to tilt Belarus in their direction.
Signs that Lukashenko is 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.
Lukashenko has threatened to resort to tough measures if the opposition goes ahead with plans to protest on October Square. Police began gathering in the city center on Sunday afternoon, and trucks used for transporting detained protesters were seen in the vicinity of the square.
Somewhat ominously for the opposition, Lukashenko suggested the rally would not take place.
"Don't worry, nobody is going to be on the square tonight," he said without elaborating after casting his ballot with his 6-year-old son, Kolya.
He also said the opposition leaders were not worthy of cooperation. "I don't conduct any dialogue with bandits and saboteurs," he said.
Nearly a quarter of the 7 million registered voters went to the polls in five days of early voting last week, according to the Central Election Commission. The opposition and election observers say early voting allows for ballot stuffing as ballot boxes are poorly guarded and voting precincts are poorly monitored.
Lukashenko, a 56-year-old former collective firm manager, maintains a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping some 80 percent of the industry under state control.
Although once seen as almost a lapdog of Russia, supporting establishing a common currency with his giant neighbor, Lukashenko in recent years has quarreled intensively with the Kremlin as Russia raised prices for the below-market gas and oil on which Belarus' economy depends.
However, his tone changed this month after Russia agreed to drop tariffs for oil exported to Belarus — a concession worth an estimated $4 billion a year.
But Lukashenko also is working to curry favor with the West, which has harshly criticized his years of human rights abuses and repressive politics. Last week, he called for improved ties with the U.S., which in previous years he had cast as an enemy.
The European Union, eager to see reforms in the obstreperous country on its borders, has offered €3 billion ($3.9 billion) in aid to Belarus if the elections are judged to be free and fair. The prospects of such a judgment and payout seem remote, however, analysts said.
Lukashenko faces nine other candidates, who were uncharacteristically allotted time for debates on state TV and radio and whose campaign rallies have met less official obstruction than in previous elections. A candidate needs to get half the total votes in order to win in the first round; the large number of challengers appears to make that unachievable for any of them, but a combined strong performance could deny Lukashenko an outright victory.
Some voters who cast their ballots in minus 8 (17 F) degree temperatures in Minsk said they favored Lukashenko in order to preserve stability.
"Only Lukashenko promises stability and calm, we don't need upheavals," said Zinaida Pulshitskaya, 62, a retired teacher.
The opposition candidates are convinced Lukashenko will manipulate the vote count.
"If we are told that there won't be a second round, it's lies and deception," opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov said Sunday after casting his ballot. "We are going to protest it on the square."
Oleg Zinkovich, 20, who voted for Sannikov, said he would show up for the protest.
"It's not enough to just make our choice, we need to defend it on the square," he said.
The opposition used the same strategy in the 2006 elections, which saw an unprecedented encampment of protesters in the square for five days before they were rounded up by riot police.
This year, the authorities have flooded all but a small slice of the square to make an ice-skating rink, but the call for the demonstration hasn't been rescinded and some organizers are calling on supporters to bring bags of salt and sand to counteract the ice.
Jim Heintz and Maria Danilova contributed to this report.
- Alexander Lukashenko
- ballot boxes
- Central Election Commission
- the Kremlin
- the European Union