Belarussian despot defies challengers

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One is a Soviet-style dictator running a police state, the other the modernising leader of the world's largest country. Their two nations are locked in an embrace that could see one swallow the other whole. But for the moment, the relationship between Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and Russia's Vladimir Putin is one of fraternal support.

After an unexpected meeting with Mr Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi last week, Mr Lukashenko suddenly brought forward the date of his country's presidential elections to 19 March. The move should guarantee the re-election of Europe's most despotic leader to a third term.

Opposition members hoping to challenge Mr Lukashenko have until tomorrow to begin the registration process - collecting the names of at least 100 nominees. Critics say bringing forward the election is part of a strategy by Mr Lukashenko to restrict any opposition campaign.

That Mr Lukashenko can run at all is due to his controversial alteration of the constitution last year to abolish presidential term limits.

The last thing Mr Putin wants to see is another popular revolution sweeping away the leadership of a neighbouring country. The flames of popular democracy are already uncomfortably close in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and even Serbia. And for months President Putin has been trying to ensure an "elegant victory" for the hard man of Minsk. For the Russian leader, even an unpredictable dictator on his western border seems preferable to a reformer such as Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine.

There may well be a high price to be paid for Moscow's support. Mr Putin once floated the idea of a common currency. Russia also wants greater control of Belarus' state-owned gas pipelines - something it can best achieve with a pliable ally in the presidential office. So it is now providing Belarus with the cheapest natural gas in the Commonwealth of Independent States - while subjecting "Orange revolution" Ukraine and "Rose revolution" Georgia to fierce price hikes.

A proposed tough new security bill makes it an offence, punishable by up to two years jail, to even train people to take part in street protests, a clause that appears intended to crack down on the sort of youth movements that were so prominent in the revolutions in Georgia and in Ukraine.

The loose wording of the bill means it could be used to jail anyone who has uttered any criticism of the president, for instance, or of the political, economic, or social state of the country.

Stepan Sukhorenko, the head of the KGB, as the Belarussian security service is still known, has already publicly accused two youth groups, the Youth Front and Zubr, of using foreign help to form their organisational core and prepare the ground for mass protests.

Determined to head off an "orange" - or any other colour - revolution, he said that Belarus had to defend itself against unprecedented pressure from abroad, in particular from the United States. He promised that the country's security services would prevent any disruption of the elections. Journalists are also in Mr Lukashenko's firing line. The legislation makes it an offence to call on foreign states, or organisations, to take measures detrimental to Belarus - even to publicise such appeals.

The European Union has been standing by helplessly as Belarus' 10 million people fall further outside the democratic orbit. Except for a condemnation of "the systematic and increasing repression of civil society and the political opposition and the independent media", the British-led EU presidency has been virtually silent on the country's slide into totalitarianism.