MOSCOW, March 14 (JTA) Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, has been tightening the screws on dissent before a presidential vote in his country next week. Lukashenko’s regime, routinely referred to in the West as Europe’s last dictatorship, is facing two opposition candidates as he campaigns for his third term in office. Support for the opposition among Belarusian Jews is especially strong among younger and more educated voters, as well as in the capital of Minsk, home to many of the country’s estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews. Jewish leaders in the past have shown a certain degree of independence from the authorities and have at times criticized the official line on issues of concern for the community. But the leaders of the community are refraining from making any predictions regarding Sunday’s vote apparently fearing a possible backlash. The authorities are afraid of a repeat of what happened in Ukraine and Georgia, where regime changes occurred as a result of pro-democracy protests that took place after rigged elections. As a result, opposition activists are being detained in Belarus and even one of the two opposition candidates was briefly arrested for holding a rally that had not been sanctioned. New amendments introduced to the criminal code will allow the regime to further clamp down on political dissent, civil rights groups fear. The opposition candidates have been all but barred from media and their rallies have been broken up by force. More recently, opposition activists in many areas of Belarus had to resort to home visits as the only way to distribute campaign materials and talk to voters. The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, a 58-year-old professor of physics, believes that he and Lukashenko both share one-quarter of popular support each, with about one-half of the electorate still undecided or afraid of showing their support to the opposition. But most observers believe Lukashenko will not allow himself to lose the vote. Lukashenko is backed by the Kremlin in Moscow, but even Russian experts helping Lukashenko in his campaign usually refrain from calling the election process in Belarus democratic. Lukashenko, still popular with many Belarusians, has maintained a strict, state-controlled economy, and has capitalized on low unemployment and stable, if meager, living standards. But at least a few Belarusians apparently have other ideas. Last week, the chief of Belarus’s KGB security service accused an allegedly foreign-funded opposition group of planning to stage an election-day coup after publishing false voting results. Opposition leaders deny the allegations, and Milinkevich has called for peaceful protests if vote-rigging occurs.
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