MINSK/KIEV (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is assured of securing a fourth term in power next Sunday, defying the West which has tried to moderate his often harsh rule and Russian attempts to call him to heel.
On past performance, the 56-year-old former state farm director, who has run ex-Soviet Belarus as a command economy since 1994, could get as much as 80 percent of the vote. Like before, opposition groups are likely to allege electoral fraud.
But, despite a shrill public campaign by Moscow against him and strong criticism from the West, Lukashenko -- a consummate artist at playing one side off against the other -- will comfortably ride out protests, analysts say.
Lukashenko himself has no doubts. “There will definitely be political changes ... but no change of power in Belarus,” he told journalists in Moscow last Friday.
He could, however, face a rougher ride over the next five years, especially if ties with Russia, which supplies Belarussian refineries with a valuable flow of tax-free crude oil, slide further. He has also to deliver on a pledge to lift the average monthly wage to $1,000, commentators say.
The International Monetary Fund says the country of 10 million has resumed economic growth, but remains vulnerable.
Other analysts point to his remarkable survival record, while being branded Europe’s “last dictator” by the Bush administration for jailing opponents and muzzling media.
“People have so many times predicted he will fall over the economy, but it has not happened. If anyone can survive it is he. He is cunning,” said Matthew Frear, an academic and Belarus expert at Birmingham University, England.
Unlike in 2006, opposition groups have not agreed a single candidate for the December 19 poll and at least 7 candidates are running against Lukashenko. Most favor a switch to a market economy and espouse political pluralism, on paper at least.
Leading the pack is Vladimir Neklyayev, a poet and head of the Govori Pravdu (Tell the Truth) movement. Lukashenko says Neklyayev is bankrolled by Russian money. He denies this.
Election observers will be allowed for the first time since 1994 to participate in the vote count, though an estimated 40 percent of the votes are likely to be cast early and thus counted without the participation of observers.
Just what outcome Russia wants is a puzzle to most analysts.
Lukashenko has used billions of dollars of Russian cash to prop up industry, but disagreement over energy supplies and Moscow’s policy in the Caucasus has irritated the Kremlin.
Last Thursday, he struck a deal with Russia over oil export duties that could save Minsk up to $4 billion and he may have managed to patch up ties -- for the time being at least.
But he has faced a fierce smear campaign by Russia’s NTV channel, accusing him of corruption and political repression.
“Russia is trying to fathom out how to deal with Belarus. It is very interested in Russian business interests having more control of oil refineries and pipelines in Belarus,” said Frear.
“But they (Moscow) do not want to stir up a ‘color revolution’ there,” he said, referring to past pro-Western power shifts in other ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia.
The European Union, which has held out prospects of $3.5 billion in future loans to Minsk, may also be in a quandary over how to handle a country which has borders with three EU states.
In the past it has roundly denounced Lukashenko’s record, but has now moved away from a strategy that risks pushing him into Moscow’s arms. It has relaxed travel sanctions against him and his officials, citing flickerings of liberalization at home.
In 2006, more than 10,000 protested after an overwhelming win by Lukashenko, but police eventually dispersed them. Frear expected a big turnout again. “If he does something horrific, all bets are off,” he said. “But if police do not intervene and it simply runs its course this could even make him look good.”
Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Maria Golovnina