Voters in Belarus go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, the head of what is often called "the last dictatorship in Europe," is heavily favored to win.
Alexander Lukashenko -- a 51-year-old former collective farm director -- has been president of Belarus for 12 years. Last year, he pushed through a referendum permitting him to run for a third time beyond the two-term limit set by the constitution. He faces three rivals: two opposition candidates and a politician sympathetic to Mr. Lukashenko.
Lukashenko's Oppressive Regime
Western experts on Belarus say since his election as president in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has ruled that country with an iron fist, consolidating power and stifling dissent.
Retired German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, who led the Belarus office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or O.S.C.E. from 1997-2001, is familiar with Mr. Lukashenko's authoritarian methods.
"He has established vertical administrative control over the whole country under his, the president's, control. He has abandoned the independent judicial system and it is under his control. He has established media monopoly -- although there are some independent newspapers -- but official information is spread every day. And the dishonoring of the opposition and of dissenting opinions is part of an ongoing information policy across the country," says Hans-Georg Wieck.
During this campaign and in previous elections, opposition candidates have had difficulty getting their points across. David Marples, an expert on Belarus teaching at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, says, "He [i.e., Lukashenko] has basically harassed, intimidated, beaten, detained some hundreds, actually, of people working for opposition candidates. And there are so many laws in place in Belarus at the moment that it is impossible for the opposition to do very much without contravening one of them. They cannot accept any funding from abroad. They cannot say anything derogatory about the president, which is very difficult, of course, in an election campaign. The slightest thing could be interpreted as being derogatory."
Because of Mr. Lukashenko's repressive measures, Western governments have described Belarus as "the last dictatorship in Europe." And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice depicted Belarus as one of six "outposts of tyranny."
Pavel Shidlovski, a counselor at the Belarus Embassy in Washington says, "We are aware of the statement by the State Secretary. And of course, we believe that such statements do not add to the credit of the Department of State. We believe that Belarus is the stronghold of stability and security in Europe. We believe that our country can be considered as an important contributor to European security, an important and reliable partner."
A Fair Election in Jeopardy
As election day approaches, opposition groups have expressed the fear that the balloting will be rigged in favor of Mr. Lukashenko. Western governments have called on authorities in Belarus to make sure that these elections are fair and free.
Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokesperson for the O.S.C.E., says the organization will monitor the elections.
“The O.S.C.E. has been in Belarus since early February with a group of 46 observers which have been observing the campaign, the administration and preparations for the election. And on election day we are being joined by an additional 440 observers."
Ms. Gunnarsdottir says the O.S.C.E. has criticized previous elections in Belarus, “In previous elections, the O.S.C.E. has been critical of such issues as freedom of assembly and association and freedom of expression." The O.S.C.E. spokesperson says the organization will hold a news conference Monday to disclose its findings.
Pavel Shidlovski from the Belarus Embassy in Washington rejects any criticism of the electoral process in his country. "We believe that the situation is developing in the normal way in the country and the authorities, the government, the Central Electoral Commission are doing everything possible to ensure equal participation of the candidates in elections and we are making sure that elections are held in compliance with international norms and standards. Really, statements like the elections are unfair and not free, before the elections are held, are very misleading and wrong," says Pavel Shidlovski.
Many Western experts on Belarus say despite strong criticism from the West, President Lukashenko remains a popular figure in his country. Robert Legvold, from the Harriman Institute at New York's Columbia University, says initially, Mr. Lukashenko had a high approval rating.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.