The signature-collecting campaign for presidential hopefuls in Belarus has come to an end, with four candidates expected to be officially confirmed soon. The pre-election campaign has been tense and there is no sign the remaining weeks leading up to the March 19 election will be any different.
The Central Election Commission in Belarus has until February 11 to publish the official list of candidates accepted to compete to become the next president of Belarus.
Few if any observers expect many surprises. Other than front-runner and incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, only three other people are expected to be in the race. They are the candidate for the united Democratic opposition, Alexander Milinkevich, along with two other candidates who are described as being close to the government of Alexander Kozulin and Sergei Gaidukevich.
Within the past few weeks, two other opposition candidates, Alexander Voitovich and Zenon Pozniak, quit the race, saying they doubted it would be free and fair.
Dr. Oleg Maynayev is an independent political analyst who heads Belarus first independent think-tank in Minsk. Dr. Maynayev tells VOA that while he does not believe anyone other than President Lukashenko can realistically win the race, he says the opposition can still make important gains.
"If Milinkevich succeeds to get around 30 percent, people will get information that there is another politician who disagrees with the existing regime, who disagrees with President Lukashenko, who expresses their disagreement and [that] there is a person who concentrates their expectations, who expresses their wills, and this person has some grounds, some capacity, and he could after the election try to go further," he said. "So, people could get hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Still, Maynayev notes that any gains for the opposition must be looked at in a long-term sense. In other words, he says he sees no quick fix, such as a so-called color revolution for Belarus, like those that swept pro-reform leaders to power in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over long-standing Soviet-style leaders.
"I don't see too much prospect for that [for] various reasons," he said. "Belarussian society is not ready for that and [a] secondly extremely important factor is that the existing regime in Belarus is much more harsh than in Georgia, or Ukraine, or even Kyrgyzstan. It means, it [the government] will respond much more brutally, including maybe orders if not to kill people, to arrest and beat them and for mass repressions. No doubts about that."
Maynayev points to the harshness of the pre-election campaign, during which candidates and opposition media have been harassed and, in some cases, shut down or silenced as evidence of his concerns about the future.
The West shares those concerns, accusing the increasingly authoritarian leader of illegally extending his term through a series of rigged elections and referenda and of trying to stamp out domestic opposition, human rights groups, and critical media.
U.S. President George Bush routinely brands Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe.
Late last week, the Council of Europe urged Mr. Lukashenko to take concrete measures to allow news broadcasts of various sources beyond just pro-government outlets. It also asked him to review the make-up of local election commissions in order to ensure fairness and balance.
President Lukashenko, who was first elected to office in 1994, has promised no major shifts in policy if he is re-elected as expected.