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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Leaves Kremlin Empty-Handed

The Kremlin's apparent unwillingness to publicly support Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's bid for re-election may affect his ratings ahead of the September vote, but the strong-willed leader should have no trouble staying in power, analysts said.

Lukashenko met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday in what the Belarussian leader had described in advance as a working meeting.

The two conversed behind closed doors in the Kremlin before Lukashenko flew back to Minsk having failed to secure any public support from Putin for his candidacy in the Sept. 9 election.

Before his departure, Lukashenko acknowledged that Putin had focused mainly on economic issues during their meeting, and he didn't miss the opportunity once again to lament the slow rate at which the two countries are integrating.

Lukashenko made the Russian-Belarussian Union one of his leading campaign issues during the 1994 presidential election, which he won by a hefty margin, although amid claims of widespread voting fraud.

The influence of the Russian political and business elite on political life in Belarus is "enormous" and any public endorsement of Lukashenko by Putin would seal his victory at the polls, according to Oleg Gulak, executive director of the Belarus Helsinki Committee in Minsk.

The Kremlin is likely to refrain from public support of any of the candidates, although Putin's aides may organize low-key meetings with Lukashenko's strongest rivals to shape opinions about them, Gulak said in a telephone interview Thursday.

In Russia's regional elections, Putin has rarely expressed public support for particular candidates, even though many of them have claimed to have secured the backing of either the president himself or his administration.

In Belarus, many of the 22 candidates — the number whose groups of supporters have been officially registered by the Central Elections Commission in order to be able to collect signatures in support of their candidacies — claim to have been backed by some Russian officials, Gulak said. And all of them, with the exception of radically patriotic leader Zenon Pozdnyak, have made further integration with Russia one of their campaign issues.

Gulak and Yevgeny Volk, the Moscow-based analyst of the Heritage Foundation, said Putin has reasons to dislike Lukashenko, who has made erratic statements recently criticizing the Russian government and democratic institutions in Russia. Putin may also be keeping his distance because of Lukashenko's odious reputation in the West.

Yet even without Putin's support, Lukashenko will win the election unless the Kremlin changes its wait-and-see tactics and decides to attack the incumbent and put millions of dollars into promoting some of his rivals, both Gulak and Volk said.

Lukashenko, who has been criticized by international democracy watchdogs for his authoritarian style and harassment of the opposition, maintains a firm grip on bureaucrats, including election officials, and on the national electronic media, the two experts said.

The only criticism of Lukashenko heard in Belarus has come from Russian media, including pro-Kremlin ORT television, which broadcast prime-time interviews with some of the other candidates earlier this month.

However, some Russian channels temporarily went off the air in Belarus for what Minsk said were technical problems.

This may happen again as the presidential race heats up.

Lukashenko features daily on Belarus' only national television channel, and most viewers know little about the allegations by two former officials in the Belarussian prosecutor's office that Lukashenko's retinue organized a death squad to kidnap and kill opposition figures, including one cameraman from ORT.

A similar scandal threw Ukraine into a political crisis, but not in Belarus, even though the two former officials have fled to the United States, where they continue to voice their accusations, and a former deputy prosecutor who was involved in investigating the kidnappings and murders has fled to Russia.

Unlike Lukashenko, his rivals for the presidency get little if any coverage in the Belarussian electronic media because election laws ban candidates from campaigning until they collect 100,000 signatures each and get registered as official candidates.

This is not expected to happen until three or four weeks before the election, which will leave Lukashenko's challengers little time to promote themselves through the media and meetings with voters, Gulak noted. Belarus, a country of 10 million, has 7 million eligible voters.

Recent nationwide polls show Lukashenko favored by 35 percent to 40 percent of those surveyed, with the second strongest candidate, former Prime Minister Mikhail Chigir, scoring only 7 percent, Gulak said, adding that the fairness and reliability of the polls were unclear.

Other candidates, including Pozdnyak, former chief of presidential staff Leonid Sinitsyn, former Foreign Trade Minister Mikhail Marinich and the daughter of Belarus' Soviet-era leader Pyotr Masherov, scored even less in the public opinion polls.

Masherov, who died in a suspicious car accident in 1980, remains immensely popular in Belarus, and his daughter, Natalya Masherova, who only recently emerged as a political figure, is seeking to capitalize on her father's popularity, Gulak said.

He said it was possible that Masherova, though clearly less popular than Chigir, may even make it to the second round of voting if opposition figures, including Pozdnyak and Chigir, do not unite around one candidate.

Once in the second round, Masherova, who some believe enjoys the support of Lukashenko's aide Vladimir Zametalin, would be much easier for the incumbent to defeat, Gulak said.

On the other hand, if Masherova proves a viable alternative to Lukashenko, she could eventually win the support of top Russian officials, he said.

In an interview with Kommersant on Friday, Masherova denied she was supported either by Belarussian or Russian leaders, saying she was "independent."

She also vowed to stay in the race until the end, despite speculation that she might withdraw her candidacy if pitted against Lukashenko in a second round.

Yet, Nezavisimaya Gazeta went so far as to speculate on whether Masherova is a "Kremlin project" and Russia's "Trojan Horse," chosen by the Putin administration to try to defeat Lukashenko, or whether she is a "sitting duck" who was picked by Lukashenko to ensure his easy victory in a second round.

Both newspapers ran front-page stories Thursday on Lukashenko's visit and his apparent failure to secure the Kremlin's support.