MINSK, Belarus — Few doubt that Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko will storm to victory in presidential elections here on Sunday. Less certain is what will happen the day after.
Observers are in agreement that the former collective farm boss, barring an incredible turn of events, will win a fourth term at the helm of the ex-Soviet eastern European state of 10 million, where he has dominated political life since 1994.
For those still not convinced, Lukashenko already gave his guarantee.
“There will definitely be political changes … but no change of power in Belarus,” he told journalists in Moscow last week.
Of course, no one expects the elections to be a true reflection of the popular will. The main group carrying out election observation missions in the former Soviet Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has never deemed a Belarus election free and fair.
But the fact that the elections could be manipulated is not to say that Lukashenko would lose should Belarus hold an open ballot. “Batka” or “father,” as many here refer to him, remains popular — especially among villagers and pensioners, who appreciate the extensive social safety net he has created.
The problem is, nobody knows for sure. Public opinion polls are unreliable. Lukashenko’s popularity is said to be slipping — or isn’t. His numbers are above 50 percent – or they aren’t.
“Lukashenko would absolutely win if these elections were free and fair,” said Vitali Silitski, director of the Minsk-based Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies. “But he can’t afford them to be free and fair, because next time he will risk losing them.”
“That’s what he’s afraid of,” Silitski added. “He can’t allow free and fair elections as an institution. Because one day he is going to lose.”
But if the election’s outcome is predictable, the campaign so far has not been.
Belarus has witnessed levels of electoral freedom almost unheard of since Lukashenko came to power 16 years ago. Candidates have campaigned openly and actively, drawing large crowds at their rallies. State television for the first time held an election debate — though Lukashenko stayed away. (The other nine candidates, instead of debating one another, used the time to excoriate the president.)
Each candidate has also been allotted free television air time — though the one hour that they received pales in comparison to the wall-to-wall coverage that Lukashenko enjoys on the national networks.
On the evening of election day, when the polls close, opposition forces promise to bring thousands of protesters onto Minsk’s main square, to rally against what they say will be a clearly doctored election. Government officials are speaking ominously of the planned demo as a “provocation.”
But it is unclear what course Lukashenko will take post-election. Some see reason for hope — that the relative thaw of the campaign period points to continued political relaxation. Others believe that the election was just a temporary respite: The crackdown will come the day after, they say.
The international economic freeze has smacked the country with force, and Belarus has seen its export markets contract considerably. Its foreign currency reserves are dropping to disturbing levels, Western officials say.
The tighter economics have given some Western officials hope that they can leverage economic assistance for further reform. The European Union, for example, has promised 3 billion euros (about $4 billion) to the Belarus government if the elections are democratic.
At the same time, relations with Russia, Minsk’s traditional political and economic patron, hit major turbulence over a series of issues. (Among the most prominent was Lukashenko’s refusal to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s breakaway regions.) The Kremlin also began slowly to increase the price Belarus pays for Russian oil and gas.
The falling out became personal, and Lukashenko and Medvedev traded insults in recent months. Russian television also aired a multi-part documentary comparing Lukashenko to a mafia boss.
Now, however, it appears as if the storm has passed. Lukashenko traveled to Moscow last week and reached agreement on a number of key fronts. Moscow promised to remove an export duty on oil shipped to Belarus, thereby saving Minsk an estimated $4 billion. Lukashenko in return promised to speed up his country’s entrance into a single economic zone with Russia and Kazakhstan — a project that the Kremlin has given top priority.
The Moscow deal may mean that Lukashenko feels less pressure to open his political system any further. Western officials are not holding out too much hope, but they do see the past months as reason for qualified optimism.
“The Belarusians try to do as little as possible, and hope for a positive response,” said one European official speaking on condition of anonymity. “But [the election] could have been different — and it has been different in the past.”
“And this could open a way for the future,” he added.