Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko seeks a third term in Sunday's election.
In this small, snow-blanketed industrial town, opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich drew applause from a crowd of about 700 with a stinging critique of the 12-year rule of Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. He pledged to end the reign of "fear, humiliation, and lies" if he is elected on March 19.
A few police officers watched impassively from the back row, but no one interfered as townspeople asked questions and stepped forward to shake hands with Lukashenko's leading rival.
It's a crucial election in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million the State Department has described as "the last outpost of tyranny in Europe." Mr. Lukashenko, who changed the Constitution two years ago to permit himself to run for a third term, insists he is playing by democratic rules, competing openly and fairly against three serious contenders. Some events, like the Zhodino meeting, seem to back him up.
But Mr. Milinkevich, who represents a coalition of 10 opposition parties, says the election is a "total farce" and has pledged to bring thousands of supporters into the streets of Minsk, the capital city, Sunday to protest despite a government ban on election-day demonstrations.
"We're against revolution, but we have the right to express ourselves peacefully," he says. "We expect provocations [from the authorities], perhaps even a bomb. Sometimes people have to give their lives for freedom, but I don't want anyone to be killed. I've warned the authorities that they will be responsible for what happens."
Nearly 300 of Milinkevich's supporters have been arrested in the past month, many sentenced to 15-day prison terms for such offenses as "organizing unsanctioned campaign events." Dozens of independent newspapers have been closed, nongovernmental organizations shuttered, and most opposition rallies declared illegal.
"Lukashenko allows some democratic window-dressing because he needs to demonstrate his legitimacy to the world," says Oleg Manaev, an independent sociologist in Minsk. "But all independent media, politicians and scholars in Belarus are under intense pressure. We face a real war against us."