MINSK: Belarussians began voting Sunday in an election that is likely to see authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claim a fifth term, with the EU possibly lifting sanctions against him if the polls take place without incident.
Lukashenko, 61, a swaggering former collective farm director once called Europe’s last dictator by Washington, has led the landlocked eastern European country closely allied to Russia since 1994.
While imposing Soviet-style economic controls and jailing opponents, Lukashenko enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regime’s durability, now making him Europe’s longest-serving leader.
The result of the polls are in little doubt, particularly as the authorities have mustered a massive early vote, accounting for at least 36 percent of the electorate, according to the country’s electoral commission.
Liudmila Vauchok, a six-time Paralympic medallist in cross-country skiing and rowing, said she voted for Lukashenko, saying he had brought “reliability and calm” to the country.
“Whatever happens, Belarus is flourishing,” Vauchok, who came to the polling station in her wheelchair with her three-year-old daughter, told AFP. “Our system is established. I wouldn’t like to be in the president’s place as things are very complicated now. The main thing is for there not to be a war.”
Other voters expressed similar reasons to support Lukashenko.
“He has his own opinion and he does not bend to anyone’s will, he protects the interests of his people,” said retired university teacher Valentina Artyomovna as she bought pastries from her polling station’s buffet, part of the authorities’ attempt to create a “holiday atmosphere” for election day.
The Belarussian president is propped up by Russia, which supplies the country of 9.5 million with cut-price energy, valuing Belarus as an ally and buffer against NATO member states such as Poland.
But Lukashenko has been known at times to publicly oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders are currently locked in a spat over whether Russia can open an air base in Belarus as Moscow flexes its military might.
Facing the West, Lukashenko’s incarceration of Belarussian political opponents has led to his international isolation and the imposition of Western sanctions on the country’s officials following disputed polls in 2010.
The European Union however is ready to suspend sanctions against Lukashenko after the surprise release in August of the country’s last political prisoners, European sources told AFP on Friday.
The proposal has sparked an outcry from opposition figures who have spent years protesting Lukashenko’s authoritarian ways.
Opposition leader Mikola Statkevich — who was pardoned in August after spending five years in jail — told AFP, “If they are together with this murderer, this criminal, then democracy is just words.”
On Saturday, the Belarussian dissident who won the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize, Svetlana Alexievich, said the EU should beware of Lukashenko.
“Every four years, new European officials come to power and think they can solve the Lukashenko problem without knowing that he is a man who is untrustworthy,” Alexievich told a news conference in Berlin.
“No one doubts that Lukashenko will win… We all suspect that for Lukashenko it doesn’t matter how we will vote, what is important is those who will count the ballots, and so there will be no surprise,” she said.
Barring opposition leaders
At an unauthorized opposition rally in the Belarussian capital Saturday, poet Vladimir Neklyayev urged the bloc to stand firm against Lukashenko.
“We know one thing: with Lukashenko in power, the situation will never change,” he told the rally, which was also attended by Statkevich.
Neklyayev was jailed in 2010 following large street protests over Lukashenko’s disputed poll victory.
Neklyayev said the rally had attracted a relatively small turnout because “people are just afraid.”
A shrewd operator and exploiter of tensions between Moscow and the West, Lukashenko recently raised his standing with the EU by hosting peace talks in Minsk on eastern Ukraine.
Last month, the Belarussian leader and his 11-year-old son Nikolai posed for a photograph with US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle at the UN General Assembly.
Lukashenko is believed to be grooming Nikolai, known as Kolya, as his successor. Often dressed in identical outfits, they have together met leaders including the pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
International OSCE observers are monitoring the polls, but the main opposition says Lukashenko has already falsified the ballot by barring its leaders from standing.
Lukashenko stands against three virtual unknowns, only one of whom, Tatiana Korotkevich, has bothered to run a campaign.
As the only alternative for opposition supporters, 38-year-old Korotkevich has made a strong showing in opinion polls, but even her team doubts she could push the election into a second round.