Colleagues at opposition website Charter97 voice doubt that Oleg Bebenin could have taken his own life.
|The campaign has been relatively free, but marred by propaganda and reprisals against the opposition[EPA]|
Political opponents of the Belarusian president are complaining of dirty tricks on the eve of the country’s presidential election.
Although the election campaign has been the most free seen since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, it has been tainted by vicious propaganda and mysterious reprisals against opposition candidates and their supporters.
An unprecedented nine candidates are running against Lukashenko in the vote, which is set to take place on Sunday. They have been granted unusual freedom to campaign, including time to debate on state television and radio (the country has no independent broadcasters).
The comparative openness apparently reflects Lukashenko’s desire to improve relations with Europe and the United States amid troubled relations with longtime patron Russia. Yet there is little prove that Lukashenko is seeking a genuinely competitive election.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker reported from Minsk that there is little chance the election will be won by anyone other than Lukashenko.
The Belarus central election committee said the combined score of all nine opposition candidates is unlikely to be even half of the number of votes they project to go to the incumbent, Barker reported.
‘Nothing but lies’
A recent documentary on Belarus’ Channel One portrayed the campaign staff of a top opposition candidate, Vladimir Neklyayev, as a gang of homosexuals, paedophiles, drug addicts and swindlers.
In the film, an unnamed bearded man identified as a member of Neklyayev’s campaign was shown posing for photos in a purple bikini. The film also accused Neklyayev’s activists of document forgery and possessing child porn and illegal drugs. Neklyayev says the movie is nothing but lies.
“Government propaganda is trying to humiliate all democratic candidates in any possible way,” Neklyayev said.
Another opposition candidate, Andrei Sannikov, complained that voters in the city of Brest have been given fake leaflets purportedly from his campaign that argued in favour of NATO membership for Belarus – which he opposes. Sannikov holds Lukashenko supporters responsible.
Even the sudden appearance of an ice-skating rink on one of the Belarusian capital’s central squares raised questions about Sunday’s presidential elections. The square is where opposition activists are planning to rally on Sunday to protest a vote count which they say will be fraudulent.
Sannikov and Neklyayev on Saturday repeated their calls for protesters to assemble after the polls close on October Square, even though a slippery sheet of ice has been laid down across almost the entire expanse in the past couple of days.
“We are going to stand for our rights there,” Neklyayev said.
In September, Oleg Bebenin, an activist close to Sannikov, died by hanging. An investigation into the circumstances of Bebenin’s death has concluded it was a suicide. But activists dispute the finding, saying he showed no signs of depression and left no suicide note.
Bebenin was one of the founders of the opposition organisation Charter 97.
Playing all the right cards
Lukashenko is courting both Russia and the West. He needs cheap oil and gas from Russia to keep the Soviet-style state-dominated economy functioning and Russia, for its part, wants a co-operative leader in a country that lies between its borders and three NATO members.
“Lukashenko must make concessions to the West and create a democratic facade in these elections,” Aleksandr Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst, said.
“But in exchange, he has turned on the machine to discredit opponents to full capacity.”
The West, offended by Belarus’ human rights record and repressive politics, is eager to see signs of reform.
“[Lukashenko] has desperately been trying to improve his image in recent years, obviously he has been regarded by some as being the last dictator in Europe,” Barker reported.
“Being able to show that this election is free and fair … he could well end up gaining that degree of support and degree of legitimacy needed to secure power in the coming future.”
Yet whilst courting the European Union, the president hasn’t forgotten his vital relationship with Russia. Belarus has signed a key trade agreement with Russia in the run-up to the election.