By Anna Badkhen
MINSK, Belarus -- Voters go to the polls in Belarus this weekend to decide on whether to endorse the Soviet-style administration of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Lukashenka, a former collective farm leader, is aiming to be re-elected for his second five year term as president on September 9.
He predicts he will win 90 per cent of the vote, but critics say the result will be rigged and the election riddled with intimidation and fear.
One Minsk resident, who did not wish to be named said: "I am sick of being afraid. Give us a normal president."
Belarus, which sits between Russia and Poland, gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
But unlike its cousins who gained independence at the same time, Belarus has ignored the West and instead veered back to the old Soviet-style for its 10 million population -- and with it, accusations of political repression and fear of reprisals.
Independent media has been subject to a crackdown, the management of the country's only national television channel having been replaced by handpicked presidential choices.
Some political rivals of Lukashenka have been jailed, while others, like journalist Dimitry Zavadsky, opposition leader Viktor Gonchar, and Gonchar's business associate Anatoly Krasovsky, have simply disappeared.
Criticism is stifled, with little coverage of opposition political figures being aired on television.
As the presidential election draws near, the government is stepping up its campaign against the few private newspapers and supporters of Lukashenka's main rival, labour union leader Vladimir Hancharyk.
Election officials last week said they were considering removing Hancharyk from the ballot because his supporters had been handing out opposition newspapers for free, which, they said, amounted to bribery.
The West is viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
Authorities have repeatedly accused Westerners, including observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which plans to send its observers to Belarus for the election of interfering in national affairs.
The OSCE denounced parliamentary elections in Belarus last year as unfair after Lukashenka's government refused to let the organisation participate in election commissions.
The administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton also refused to recognise the election results.
Lukashenka, who gained power in 1994, extended his term in 1996 with a referendum which critics said was unfair and illegal.
Officials from the U.S. State Department have criticised the government for its current crackdown on the opposition.
Phillip Reeker, a deputy spokesman, urged Belarus to "dispel the current climate of fear and to create an atmosphere that is conducive to free and fair presidential elections on September 9."
Lukashenka counters that the West is trying to overthrow him.
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Belarus National Assembly
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