LIANE HANSEN, host:
In the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, voting is underway today to elect a president. The powerful incumbent strongman Alexander Lukashenko is widely expected to win, but the opposition claims the voting is rigged. Other candidates have called for their supporters to go out on the streets and tensions are running high.
NPR's Gregory Feifer is in Minsk. Gregory, how's the voting going so far?
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Well, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have told me everything is going normal so far. But I think that begs the question, what is normal? The observers I saw were interviewing official election commissioners. There are 74,000 of them and only two represent opposition parties.
One Russian observer told me he's already heard evidence that early voting before election day has already allowed falsifications.
HANSEN: So there is a way to tell if there are campaign violations going on?
FEIFER: I think it's very difficult to tell. I think that most observers say that these things are done behind closed doors and there will be very little direct evidence of falsification.
HANSEN: The opposition is calling for peaceful demonstrations. They want to protest what they say is a rigged election. Is there going to be a protest today?
FEIFER: No one knows really what's going to happen. Alexander Milinkevich, the top opposition candidate, is indeed calling on his supporters to come to a central square with flowers. He's calling on them not to answer to any provocations towards violence.
He also tells me that he's noticed a change among the population in recent weeks. He says people are less afraid of authorities even though all independent newspapers have been shut and hundreds of election campaigners arrested.
HANSEN: What have you heard about a violent confrontation yesterday between protesters and police?
FEIFER: There were some incidents reported in Minsk, an apartment building was evacuated. But no one, again, no one knows what's gonna happen today. There's a lot of police out on the cold and snowy streets of Minsk today. The chief of the security service, which is by the way, is still called by its Soviet-era name, the KGB, said any public disturbances would be seen as terrorism. And he's also said foreign-backed opposition groups were plotting to seize power by force. Things are so far quiet, but no one knows how many people are going to turn out and whether there will be violent clashes.
HANSEN: And no one knows how the authorities will conduct themselves today, obviously.
FEIFER: I think people are expecting the authorities to crack down, but nobody wants to say whether there'll be violence.
HANSEN: Hundreds of opposition campaigners have been arrested. Independent media shut down during the campaign. Has there been any international response to both of those things?
FEIFER: There has recently. The White House on Friday accused President Lukashenko of being among the most corrupt leaders in the world. Both the United States and also European countries have warned that they may enact sanctions after the elections. Lukashenko is actually already banned from traveling to most of Europe. But I think it really remains to be seen whether any serious measures will be undertaken. Belarus' main ally is Russia. And the West in the past has been very careful not to step on Moscow's toes.
HANSEN: NPR's Gregory Feifer in Minsk. Gregory, thank you very much.