Threat Against Protesters Darkens Belarus Vote

Security officials in Belarus warn they will crush protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, heightening tension before his expected re-election on Sunday. Outside observers have little hope of a free and fair election.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet Republic of Belarus with an iron fist for the past 12 years. On Sunday, he is expected to win Belarus' presidential election by a landslide. In much of that country, Mr. Lukashenko is genuinely popular, in part because of his control over the media.

From Minsk, NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Narodnaya Volya, or the People's Will newspaper, was Belarus' last independent daily paper. Banned from newsstands last year, it circulated copies by mail from across the border in neighboring Russia. This week it shut down completely. Editor Svyatlana Kalinkina says the paper wasn't outlawed outright. Instead, the government put up obstacles making it too expensive for newspapers like hers to survive.

Ms. SVYATLANA KALINKINA (Editor in Chief, Narodnaya Volya Newspaper): (Through Translator) It all began one day last October. Within a half hour we received faxes from our printers and distributors annulling all contracts.

FEIFER: Such indirect tactics have enabled the government to maintain Belarus has a free press and that papers that close simply aren't good enough to compete. Belarus had 60 independent newspapers reporting about politics. Now Belarusians get almost all their information through state channels. They churn out praise for Lukashenko and exult Belarus as an economic powerhouse. The President often uses his exclusive platform to criticize Western countries for seeking to overthrow him, as he did earlier this month.

President ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO (Belarus): (Through Translator) The whole Western world is working against us. If we give up our country without a fight, our children will curse us and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.

FEIFER: During the election campaign, other candidates got almost no coverage. Alexander Milinkevich is the main opposition challenger. He says in the rare occasions he's mentioned on television, he's often referred to only anonymously as an opposition candidate.

Mr. ALEXANDER MILINKEVICH (Opposition Presidential Candidate, Belarus): (Through Translator) For us, the campaign is a chance to go to the people, to tell them the truth, to breakdown the pervasive fear that's returned to our country for the first time since Stalin's day.

FEIFER: With almost no access to the media, Milinkevich faces an increasingly difficult task. Anatoli Libitko(ph) is one of his top advisors. He says most Belarusians believe conditions at home are better than in other countries, even though the average wage is only $250.00 a month.

Mr. ANATOLI LIBITKO (Top Advisor to Alexander Milinkevich): (Through Translator) More than 60 percent of the population repeats the propaganda on Belarus television, that they're part of the middle class. But 65 percent of the middle class says it's paid an amount that's actually below the official subsistent level.

FEIFER: A new law enacted last October makes it a crime for Belarusians to discredit the state, something punishable by up to two years in prison. Andre Bustayets(ph) of the Belarus Association of Journalists says the new law is partly aimed at making foreign journalists worried about putting their sources at risk.

Mr. ANDRE BUSTAYETS (Journalist, Belarus Association of Journalists): (Through Translator) The Chairman of the Security Service simply said you shouldn't say bad things about the authorities to foreigners. The authorities are trying to control the media, not just inside the country, but also abroad, by trying to scare people in Belarus.

FEIFER: Lukashenko's critics say the government's election season crackdowns have made the country a full-blown dictatorship. The state security service, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB, says protests on election day could be seen as terrorism, possibly punishable by the death penalty. Opposition groups are nevertheless calling for mass demonstrations in the capital tomorrow, but even if they take place it seems the only way most Belarusians will hear about them is through word of mouth. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Minsk.

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