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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Belarus, Heated Campaign Leaves Voters Cold

MINSK, Belarus -- If voters wanted to get excited about Belarus' first presidential election, they could listen to the leading candidates: One warns of an impending civil war, another threatens to put the entire government behind bars if he wins. Or they could consider the choice they face as they head to the polls Thursday. Will this small, land-locked country lurch ahead into the unknown as an independent state with a market economy? Or will it lapse into its traditional role as a stable, conservative outpost of its neighbors, in this case Russia. To top it off, Belarussians could see their poll as a precursor to a presidential vote in Ukraine on Sunday, where voters face similar tensions and a similar choice. Both elections are being watched carefully in Moscow, where leading politicians have openly backed candidates favoring closer ties with Russia over nationalist leaders. All this is heady stuff for Belarus, a country known for its passivity and tolerance of conquerors since the sixth century, rather than for political intrigues. But despite the heated campaign rhetoric and the issues at stake, Belarussians, rocked by economic hardship and distrustful of their leaders, seemed largely apathetic on the eve of the vote. "It doesn't mater who wins, nothing will be the better for it," said Alexander Shcherba, a Minsk bodyguard who, like many other residents of the capital had not decided Wednesday whom to vote for, or whether to vote at all. This indifference seems most likely to play into the hands of Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, 58, an old-style Soviet manager who has parlayed his sizeable support among the country's old Communist guard and access to the media into front-runner status. Save for an occasional poster of a brooding Kebich bearing the ominous-sounding slogan "Always with you," there was little sign of Thursday's vote on Minsk's pleasantly monotonous tree-lined boulevards studded with concrete-block buildings. The local media has been clogged with interviews with Kebich or reports supporting him. Kebich's main rivals are nationalist leader Zenon Poznyak, 50, whose anti-Russian words have made him a target for charges of stirring up a civil war; Alexander Lukashenko, 39, the fiery head of parliament's anti-corruption commission who has promised to arrest Kebich's entire government if he is elected; and Stanislav Shushkevich, 59, the reformist former parliament chairman ousted by Kebich's conservative supporters in parliament in January. If 50 percent of Belarus' 7.3 million voters take part, validating the elections, the two candidates with the most votes will contest a run-off in July, barring the unlikely event that any single candidate should win 50 percent of the turnout. Although pre-election opinion polls are forbidden, the latest unofficial data puts Kebich, Lukashenko, Poznyak at about 18 percent support, with Shushkevich close behind. Opposition candidates, particularly Poznyak, charge that the government is using unfair campaign tactics to guarantee that the prime minister makes it to the second round. "People are being told that if they don't vote for the prime minister, they will lose their jobs," said Alexander Fedko, a teacher from a village outside Minsk. "Soldiers are being told they will lose their leave." Unlike Russia, where factory workers are on half pay and salaries are months late, in Belarus salaries come in full and on time thanks to heavy state subsidies that the opposition charges are sapping achievement. The consequences of Kebich's policies are inflation that is currently raging at 50 percent and a local currency, the zaichik (or "bunny"), that trades at 22,500 to the dollar. Average wages are a meager $20 per month. Kebich has responded to the crisis by calling for a halt to a voucher privatization program that was due to begin July 1 and for a price freeze on goods in state-owned food stores. Police have begun arresting traders who sell for a profit under a Soviet-era law. The long-term solution, Kebich says, lies in resurrecting economic ties sundered by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. He cites the monetary union signed with Russia this year as a principle way of accomplishing this, and on Wednesday -- one day before the vote -- he was in Moscow visiting President Boris Yeltsin, Itar-Tass reported. Kebich has made no effort to cast himself as a financial specialist or a democratic reformer, preferring to model himself after his former mentor, Pyotr Masherov, the popular Communist Party boss under Brezhnev who was killed in an auto accident in 1980. Lukashenko, seen as Kebich's main rival, has an equally notorious hero: KGB founder and Belarus native Felix Dzerzhinsky. Lukashenko vows to put away all corrupt officials, ban commercial banking and immediately call for the reestablishment of the Soviet Union. A former collective farm director, Lukashenko is reminiscent of Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in his flair for controversy as well as his tough talk, which, in a televised speech Monday, took the form of a warning of possible election-day bloodshed. The two nationalist candidates believe the country's future lies in a Baltic-style national revival they could fund by using the country's position as a crossroads to Moscow. Both Shushkevich and Poznyak point out that a third of the country was part of Poland until 1939, and, like the Baltic states, did not come under Soviet rule until World War II. Both politicians have major weaknesses. Poznyak alarmed Moscow politicians with his recent statement that Russia is "an enemy of Belarussian independence and freedom" and worries liberals with his past comparisons of his ideology to that of French ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. But what has frightened off many potential voters are allegations in the official press that if he were elected, Poznyak would exact revenge on Communists and collective farm workers and throw out Russians, who make up 20 percent of Belarus' population. Shushkevich has never built a political following at home. His major weakness is his inability to make progress on economic reform as head of state after he, Yeltsin and Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk signed the agreement dissolving the Soviet Union in 1991. "He had power, and what did he do with it?" said Vladimir Karpenko, an engineer in Minsk.