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Polls Open in Belarus Presidential Elections With Fears of Violence, Fraud


Voters in the former Soviet republic of Belarus are casting ballots in a presidential election widely expected to hand a third term to Alexander Lukashenko. The opposition is accusing the president of rigging the vote in an election process criticized by Western nations.

The voting atmosphere in Belarus is one of unease with many expecting possible violence if the opposition takes to the streets after polls close Sunday night protesting election fraud.

The main opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, has already predicted he will lose the vote to President Alexander Lukashenko - who is seeking a third consecutive term.

Mr. Milinkevich says he's had no means to get his message out through the state-controlled media.

He says people only see one man, who is always talking on television about how he is going to save the nation, to make it prosper and the like - so naturally people think there is only one candidate.

Lukashenko supporters control the electoral apparatus and the media. Electoral monitors will not be able to observe vote counting. Some foreign observers and journalists have been barred from entering the country.

Dozens of opposition leaders have been arrested in recent weeks, including associates of Mr. Milinkevich.

He has called on supporters to hold peaceful protest rallies after the polls close Sunday evening.

Mr. Lukashenko has vowed that police will "break the neck" of anyone who takes to the streets. And the Belarus security service is warning protesters may even face the death penalty as such actions would be considered "terrorism".

Top government officials have charged repeatedly that foreign countries, including the United States and European Union nations, are seeking to "mount a coup" against Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand since 1994.

The former state-farm boss does enjoy certain support, especially among rural voters who fear economic hardship if the Soviet-style economy is changed.

In recent days U.S. and EU officials have criticized the election process and warn that Belarus could face new sanctions if the voting is deemed not fair.

The Belarus election pits the West and Russia in a new test of wills after the downfall of pro-Russian governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in recent years.

Belarus and Russia have long talked about merging the two countries, and the Kremlin is angered by what it sees as Western "meddling" in Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

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