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Europe

Ahead of Belarus election, Lukashenko puts on best airs

Having released political prisoners, Alexander Lukashenko wants to emerge from elections with a sanitized image. Though the Belarusian president has hopes for a new beginning, his authoritarian political system persists.

All indicators are pointing toward a routine victory. According to pre-election opinion polls, Alexander Lukashenko's popularity is soaring while his opponents look weak. The president of

Belarus

has run the former Soviet republic with an iron hand, and he is casually looking ahead to his fifth election victory this Sunday.

Russia, Lukashenko's closest ally, threw a spanner into the president's plans only weeks before the election. The country is finalizing plans for the construction of a military air base in Belarus. In light of the war in neighboring Ukraine, surveys say that almost 45 percent of Belarusians are against the plans. The opposition tried to compel people to take to the streets, and, on Tuesday,

Lukashenko criticized Russia

in an unusually harsh manner and said that his country did not need such an air base.

Lukashenko wants to shed his international image as "Europe's last dictator." He feels that he no longer fits the bill. "There are dictators a bit worse than me, no?" he told Bloomberg News in April. "I am the lesser evil." He was hinting at Russia's Vladimir Putin. Ever since the Ukraine crisis, Lukashenko is being referred to as "dictator" increasingly less.

When Lukashenko claimed victory in the 2010 elections, police were called on to put down protests in Minsk, the capital. Several opposition leaders were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. The European Union reacted with sanctions and travel bans and blocked the bank accounts of Belarusian politicians and businessmen. Lukashenko was isolated.

Alexander Lukashenko

Lukashenko has four opponents, though that's not expected to change anything

Exploiting Ukraine's conflict

The 61-year-old Lukashenko has used Ukraine's civil war to break out of his isolation. First, Minsk became the meeting point for talks between Ukraine's government and separatists. At the end of August, Lukashenko surprisingly pardoned many imprisoned opposition politicians. The European Union welcomed this development, and leaders expressed hopes that he would take the next step and hold truly democratic presidential elections.

Lukashenko has also benefited domestically from Ukraine's conflict. He outlined two options for Belarus in his electoral program: stability or chaos. Whoever rejected "revolution, blood and war" should vote for him. The strategy paid off. For 48 percent of Belarusians, peace and stability are the main priorities, according to the polling firm NISEPI, which is registered in Vilnius, Lithuania. "The events in Ukraine were the main factor that formed the internal political views of the population in Belarus," Oleg Manaev, founder of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, told DW. Fearing that Belarus could fracture as Ukraine had, people decided to stand behind Lukashenko.

Sociologists like Manaev predict that Lukashenko will win with two-thirds of the vote. Three other candidates have registered - a woman is running for the first time. Observers say that none of the opponents poses a threat to Lukashenko. The divided opposition was incapable of agreeing on a contender. Politicians such as Alexander Lebedko thus called for an election boycott. He had wanted to run, but did not manage to obtain the 100,000 signatures needed for a presidential candidature.

Observers see fiscal reasons behind Lukashenko's sudden international friendliness. The country has been hit hard economically, and assistance from Russia is no longer sufficient. It remains to be seen whether Lukashenko's hopes will be fulfilled. The

deadline to ease EU sanctions

expires on October 31. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius had asked for an easing of sanctions back in August. "Yet there is no reason at the moment to believe that democratic conditions have been created in Belarus," Oliver Kaczmarek, a Social Democrat from the Ruhrgebiet and member of the parliamentary group focused on Belarus, told DW. "But we want to accept the positive signals, like the release of political prisoners," he added. Now everyone is keeping an eye on the elections.

Indeed, Lukashenko continues to rule alone. "People shouldn't believe that the Belarusian ruler has suddenly changed and become democratic," Alexander Klaskovski, of the online news service Naviny.by, told DW.

Despite the gestures, Lukashenko does not want to give the impression that he is turning toward the European Union. At a recent conference, he demonstrated his allegiance to Russia by saying that "we have always been together and will stay together for a long time." Observers expect that Russia will remain Lukashenko's strongest partner, and that the country has enough leverage to force its air base on Belarus. Both countries established the Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics in early 2015. The strong economic dependence on Russia is expected to intensify.

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