The Belarusian parliament on Friday set a March date for the next presidential vote, leaving the opposition just a week to get its candidate registered for an election that incumbent Alexander Lukashenko is all but certain to win. Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron hand for 11 years and has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in the West, is seeking another term. He will face off against Alexander Milinkevich, the candidate from an opposition coalition.
Parliament's decision to set the vote for March 19 came a day after Lukashenko paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. During their brief meeting, Lukashenko again reiterated his country's close ties to Russia. The two leaders' concern over the mass protest movements that brought Western-leaning leaders to power in Ukraine and Georgia has brought Russia and Belarus closer together recently. Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party, claimed that at the Thursday meeting with Putin, Lukashenko had been promised Moscow's support in the election. Lebedko did not say how he learned of details from the meeting. He suggested that there could be a high price to pay for Moscow's backing. In return, Lebedko said, the Belarusian leader could be forced to allow Russia to annex several regions of the country. Russia could also be offered favorable deals with Beltransgaz, Belarus' natural gas pipeline operator, Lebedko said.
Plans for greater political and economic union between Minsk and Moscow have remained largely on the drawing board despite regular top-level summits. But speculation has been rife that Putin may seek to merge the two countries into a new state and thus get a green light to stand for a third presidential term, which Russia's constitution bars him from doing.
Both he and Lukashenko have denied the speculation. The March 19 election date also means presidential candidates have only one week left before submitting to election officials a list of no fewer than 100 supporters nominating them for president. This poses additional difficulties for the small and beleaguered opposition, reports the AP. N.U.