Belarus' authoritarian president seems set to win re-election Sunday. Some say EU help is needed to bring about change. But others believe the country's future still lies in the hands of its mighty eastern neighbor.
Belarusians will vote Sunday, but the outcome's already certain
"Dad, what's going to happen if you're not re-elected?" Victor Lukashenko recently asked his father, Alexander. "Where will we live?"
The Belarusian president's son needn't worry too much. Alexander Lukashenko, who has cemented his authoritarian rule since coming to power in 1994, is widely expected to win Sunday's presidential elections with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Support for Milinkevich is growing, but not strong enough for a change of power
The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, is not expecting to move into the presidential residence any time soon.
"We're using this election to reach as many people as possible and inform them about alternatives to a life in fear," he recently told DW-TV.
Independent observers have already denounced the poll as fraudulent, pointing to widespread intimidation and arrests of members of the opposition as well as expulsions of outside observers, including members of the European Parliament.
"The manipulation ahead of the election already makes it unfair and undemocratic," said Georg Schirmbeck, a German parliamentarian and Belarus expert for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. He added that a massive deployment of troops in the Belarusian capital Minsk had already taken place ahead of the election, according to officials at the German embassy.
EU threatens sanctions
All presidential candidates get equal play on election posters, but Lukashenko (left) is certain to win
Meanwhile, Belarus' secret service -- which is still called the KGB -- has claimed that the opposition is in a secret plot to forcibly seize power. KGB head Stepan Sukhorenko on Thursday said that anyone trying to "destabilize the situation will be charged with terrorism," and faces life in prison or the death penalty.
EU officials have already expressed their outrage over the situation and threatened to strengthen sanctions unless those detained are released immediately. One option under consideration is widening a visa ban that's currently limited to Lukashenko and five other key members of his administration.
Experts have said that an extended visa ban would send a clear signal to the administration. But they've also said that the European Union had to think about new ways to reach the broader Belarusian population to bring about change in the long term.
Creating space for discussion
"We need to give them space for discussion and get them to a point where they know what choices they have," said Agnieszka Komorowska of Warsaw's Stefan Batory Foundation, which was established by American financier and philanthropist George Soros.
Lukashenko -- according to independent pollsters -- would even win the election without manipulating the result as many older Belarusians feel that the regime provides them with the basic necessities for life. But Komorowska said that Europe should not use this as an excuse.
"For happy Belarus," reads Lukashenko's election poster. The reality looks slightly different
"We still need to keep our attention focused on Belarus so that we don't wake up in 10 years time and are confronted with a society that is completely isolated," she said, adding that supporting independent media and encouraging youth exchanges were ways to expose Belarusians to a view of Europe not thwarted by the regime.
Others agreed that access to a free press was vital.
"The European Commission should enlarge the support for independent broadcasting to Belarus to 24 hours," said Lubos Vesely of the Association for International Affairs in Prague, who recently co-authored a report on EU policy towards Belarus.
While that's far from becoming reality, the EU in February announced a 2-million-euro ($2.4 million) project that includes TV and radio broadcasting programs and support of online and print journalism in Belarus. The EU has also given about 130,000 euros to Deutsche Welle to produce a 15-minute radio program for Belarus that is broadcast five times a week.
Vesely added that the EU should also consider waiving current visa fees of 30 euros for Belarusians to make it easier for them to visit the bloc.
"Propaganda in Belarus is based on traditions of Soviet propaganda, saying that Europe is a place of crime, unemployment, anarchy and other problems," he said. "We should show them that we are interested to see them here. It's a very good investment for the future."
Putin may not be quite as tall as Lukashenko, but he hold's the latter's future in his hands
But German parliamentarian Schirmbeck, who plans to travel to Belarus to monitor Sunday's elections, said that such attempts to support the development of an active civil society were largely of a cosmetic nature.
"The EU has to keep the pressure on (Russian President Vladmir) Putin, who is the only one who can bring about real change in Belarus," he said, adding that Russian deliveries of heavily subsidized oil allowed Lukashenko to keep his economy afloat.