Belarussians began voting Sunday in an election that is likely to see authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claim a fifth term, with the EU possibly lifting sanctions against him if the polls take place without incident.
Lukashenko, 61, a swaggering former collective farm director once called Europe\’s last dictator by Washington, has led the landlocked eastern European country closely allied to Russia since 1994.
While imposing Soviet-style economic controls and jailing opponents, Lukashenko enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regime\’s durability, now making him Europe\’s longest-serving leader.
The result of the polls are in little doubt, particularly as the authorities have mustered a massive early vote, accounting for at least 36 percent of the electorate, according to the country\’s electoral commission.
Belarussian state television reported Sunday that some polling stations would offer snacks and hold live musical performances to create a "holiday atmosphere."
The Belarussian president is propped up by Russia, which supplies the country of 9.5 million with cut-price energy, valuing Belarus as an ally and buffer against NATO member states such as Poland.
But Lukashenko has been known at times to publicly oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders are currently locked in a spat over whether Russia can open an air base in Belarus as Moscow flexes its military might.
Facing the West, Lukashenko\’s incarceration of Belarussian political opponents has led to his international isolation and the imposition of Western sanctions on the country\’s officials following disputed polls in 2010.
The European Union however is ready to suspend sanctions against Lukashenko after the surprise release in August of the country\’s last political prisoners, European sources told AFP on Friday.
The proposal has raised an outcry from those opposition figures who have spent years protesting Lukashenko\’s authoritarian ways.
Opposition leader Mikola Statkevich — who was pardoned in August after spending five years in jail — told AFP: "If they are together with this murderer, this criminal, then democracy is just words."
On Saturday, the Belarussian dissident who won the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize, said the EU should beware of Lukashenko.
"Every four years, new European officials come to power and think they can solve the Lukashenko problem without knowing that he is a man who is untrustworthy," Svetlana Alexievich told a news conference in Berlin on the eve of the election which she claims will be rigged.
"No one doubts that Lukashenko will win… We all suspect that for Lukashenko it doesn\’t matter how we will vote, what is important is those who will count the ballots, and so there will be no surprise," she said.
At an unauthorised opposition rally in the Belarussian capital Saturday, poet Vladimir Neklyayev urged the bloc to stand firm against Lukashenko.
"We know one thing: with Lukashenko in power, the situation will never change," he told the rally, which was also attended by Statkevich.
Neklyayev was jailed in 2010 following large street protests over Lukashenko\’s disputed poll victory.
The opposition figures linked arms at the head of a column of some 400 protesters and urged the crowd to boycott the vote, while demonstrators shouted slogans such as "Sasha, leave!" referring to Lukashenko, and some waved EU flags.
Neklyayev added that the rally had only attracted a relatively small turnout because "people are just afraid."
A shrewd operator and exploiter of tensions between Moscow and the West, Lukashenko recently raised his standing with the EU by hosting peace talks in Minsk on eastern Ukraine, attended by French President Francois Hollande, Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Last month, the Belarussian leader and his 11-year-old son Nikolai last month posed for a photograph with US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle at the UN General Assembly.
Lukashenko is believed to be grooming Nikolai, known as Kolya, as his successor. Often dressed in identical outfits, they have together met leaders including the pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
International OSCE observers are monitoring the polls, but the main opposition says Lukashenko has already falsified the ballot by barring its leaders from standing.
Lukashenko instead stands against three virtual unknowns, only one of whom, Tatiana Korotkevich, has bothered to run a campaign.