Protesters Call For Free Elections In Belarus

In Belarus, opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko have taken to the streets demanding a fair vote in Sunday's presidential election. Most people expect Lukashenko to win by a carefully pre-ordained margin of victory.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The former Soviet Republic of Belarus is gearing up for a presidential election. The country is on the doorstep of the European Union, but it remains a throwback to Soviet times. The government controls the media. There's an agency watching over citizens. And that agency is called the KGB, just like in Soviet times. And President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been described as a Soviet-style dictator, is the overwhelming favorite to win the election. NPR's David Greene spent last evening chatting with people in the capital.

DAVID GREENE: It was a cold night in Minsk and a small crowd was gathered in a brick square. Their protest flags were mingling with the snow that was falling. Some of the flags - the blue European Union flag with Belarus written through it. This crowd was calling for a free election this Sunday and for the end of President Alexander Lukashenko's rule. He's been in power for 16 years.

BORIS: My name is Boris. I'm am 23.

GREENE: Why are you here tonight?

BORIS: Well, now, because our current president, he really pisses us off already. And now and now we are ready and willing to vote for anyone else, just to just to get this one off.

GREENE: Why does he piss you off?

BORIS: 'Cause he stole our freedom.

GREENE: There was also this 20-year-old woman.

Unidentified Woman: I don't know what to do, actually.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Woman: It's a huge(ph) machine, a government machine.

GREENE: The government machine, she says, is at her university, pressuring students to take part in early voting. Critics say the government wants ballots in before election day so they have more time to manipulate them. People on campus are nervous.

Unidentified Woman: Especially those students that live in dormitories. They are forced to because if they don't vote before the appointed time, they will just leave, lose their place at the university. And the prices for the accommodation in the Minsk are very high.

GREENE: Intimidation is a way of life in Belarus. It's one reason a lot of people preferred not giving their names. They fear a backlash. Yet despite pressure, this woman is determined to vote when she is ready.

Unidentified Woman: Actually, I am afraid. But I want to believe in our future.

GREENE: The future, for now, is controlled by a 56-year-old president with a formula for staying in power. Lukashenko's kept mostly close ties with the Kremlin, and Russia provides natural gas to this country. Tack on a few trade deals with China and Venezuela, and Lukashenko has kept the economy afloat.

President ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: There are nine other candidates running for his job. But they've been denied airtime on state-controlled TV in the weeks before the election. The president, though, was televised at something called the We Are Belarus Gala.

President LUKASHENKO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: He promised all Belarusians good jobs and a good life. In fact, the president sets many salaries, since 80 percent of citizens work for the state. People are generally on one-year contracts, meaning the government can easily take your job if you're out of line.

(Soundbite of laughter and chatter)

GREENE: I met Anatoly and Zinaida Pavlyuchuk earlier this week. Theyre in their 50s. He's a government electrician. She's at a government construction firm. They call Lukashenko father, and they said he's helped Belarus avoid the economic problems and protests elsewhere in Europe.

Ms. ZINAIDA PAVLYUCHUK: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Our pensions are paid, so are our salaries, Mrs. Pavlyuchuk said. Maybe sometimes it's strict. That's necessary. Just look at countries that are not so strict.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: Strange thing - there are no campaign posters on the streets in Belarus, no political ads on TV. Radio stations, though, say they were forced by the government to play this tune.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Men: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: Sanya is short for Alexander, the president's name, and this song's about how mom and dad just want Sanya to stay.

David Greene, NPR News, Minsk.

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