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Leader of Belarus Seeks to Prolong Rule - 2004-10-16

The authoritarian leader of the former Soviet republic of Belarus is seeking to extend his rule in a controversial referendum that would amend the country's constitution, and allow him to run for a third term.

Brushing aside criticism from the United States and the European Union, Alexander Lukashenko is all but certain to win a vote that critics say is likely to be rigged.

A former collective farm boss, Mr. Lukashenko held a similar referendum in 1996 that was marred by irregularities, but allowed him to serve two terms in office, set to end in 2006.

Sunday's vote would allow him to stay in power at least until 2010.

Victory for Mr. Lukashenko is all but assured in a country that has routinely been criticized for widespread human rights abuses and lack of democratic reforms.

Most opposition figures are either in jail, in exile, or have disappeared.

Those disappearances led the United States and European Union recently to impose a travel ban on top officials in the Belorussian government.

Many critics call Mr. Lukashenko Europe's last dictator, whose tight rule has led to economic chaos in the tiny state that sits on Russia's western frontier.

Yaroslav Romanchuk is a commentator with the Strategy Analytical Center in the Belorussian capital, Minsk. He says Western criticism of Mr. Lukashenko has fallen on deaf ears.

"He doesn't want to be part of Europe, because he doesn't belong there, if we talk about values, about the fundamental principles of statehood," said Yaroslav Romanchuk. "His ultimate goal is to rebuild the Soviet Union in as vast a territory of the ex-Soviet Union as possible."

Mr. Romanchuk is referring to a long discussed plan to unite Russia and Belarus in a kind of "union."

The idea of a union was first proposed with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin a decade ago. But it has foundered since Vladimir Putin came to power in Moscow five years ago, when relations with the Belorussian leader took a turn for the worse.

Meetings between the two men have been testy, as Mr. Putin has made clear that Russia has little interest in effectively bailing out Belarus' state-run economy.

But the Kremlin has been silent on Sunday's referendum.

Analysts say this may be because many powerful Russian businessmen have interests in Belarus and have no interest in seeing someone new take over there.

Despite state control over the media and political process, Belorussian activists have carried out an underground campaign by spray painting anti-Lukashenko graffiti around the country.

Legislative elections will also be held on Sunday, with Mr. Lukashenko predicting his supporters would make a clear sweep of all 110 seats in a parliament where the opposition currently has just four seats.