Who will come out to vote in Belarus?

People seem to want change, but with regular efforts failing so often, they are just not sure how to achieve it.


    My colleague, Rob Hodge, got it just right: It's like the period between Christmas and New Year, when the weather's rotten, you've over-indulged and everyone's gone somewhere else on holiday. That's how Minsk feels today. You'd never think it was election time.

    It's a quiet, under-populated city at the best of times, I'm told, but not short of middle-class amusements.

    There's a Jennifer Lopez concert next week. Hugh Laurie played here in June. There are a few chic bars and restaurants, and a casino on every corner.

    Much has changed since I was last here four years ago, when the city felt backward and tired, stuck in a torpor of communist-era decay.

    Much has stayed the same, also. President Lukashenko, political prisoners, police in their giant hats, meaningless polls.

    Now, the opposition politicians say they're tired. Harassed. Exhausted, as one party leader put it. The main opposition parties have called for a boycott of Sunday's parliamentary vote, a vain effort to keep turnout below the required minimum, as if the Election Commissar's pen won't simply fiddle the numbers anyway.

    While few seem to have much time for a parliamentary election, it's not because they don't want change.

    Belarus is struggling with an economic crisis that has seen two recent currency devaluations. Prices are up, wages are down. Lukashenko, now in his 18th year in power, is reportedly so unpopular that he's kept out of the public eye as much as possible.

    It's hard to find a picture of him anywhere - a peculiar absence in this part of the world, and particularly strange in light of his 2010 election victory with 80 per cent of the vote on a turnout of more than 90 per cent, according to the government. Not really, no.

    Oh, people seem to want change. They're just not sure how to achieve it, because the regular methods have failed them too often.

    The last time international observers judged an election in Belarus "free and fair" was in 1995.

    The last time the public showed their displeasure - after the 2010 vote - a 30,000 strong protest was violently dispersed by the police and 600 people were arrested. By the end of polling day seven out of nine candidates who'd stood against Lukashenko for the presidency were in KGB detention.

    Yes, it's still called the KGB here.

    Just a few days ago, journalists covering a regular opposition picket in town were rounded up and beaten by what some suspect were government-hired thugs.

    So, who will come out and vote in the all-government line-up of candidates for the 110-seat legislature this weekend? I don't rightly know. I'm not expecting a rush.



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