PRAGUE, 13 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Belarus goes to the polls to elect a president on 19 March, but this is an election with a difference.
As many as seven candidates will be vying for the popular vote -- but no one doubts the outcome, not even the opposition leaders still struggling to gather enough support to join the contest.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich is the leader of the united opposition and widely seen as the strongest of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's challengers.
Yet even he concedes that the task of ousting Lukashenka is beyond his powers -- at least this time around: "It's impossible to beat Lukashenka in the elections, because we haven't had real elections in Belarus in a long time. We will use the elections -- which are our constitutional right -- to conduct a broad political campaign. We hope to win this campaign."
Lukashenka, who is seeking an unprecedented third term, claims to have already collected nearly 1 million signatures. Milinkevich and a third candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, by contrast, have just passed the 100,000-signature threshold.
But Milinkevich is fairly sanguine about the odds.
What do you expect, he says, when the opposition is denied access to the media, cut off from foreign support and constantly harassed by the authorities. Among ordinary Belarusian voters, the profile of opposition leaders, his own included, is extremely low.
The answer, he believes, is to take the message direct to the people -- by knocking on their doors.
But opposition activists find themselves harassed by the police at almost every turn. Nina Kavalyova, a cultural instructor at a hostel for workers in Vitsebsk, is one of those."Some [people in our district] collected signatures for Lukashenka, while I collected for Milinkevich. I got 124 signatures in Pershamayski District alone," Kavalyova says. "Then yesterday I was summoned by the manager [of my hostel] who told me: 'Go to the human resources department. You need to tender your resignation.'"
Valyantsina Kudlatskaya from Homel was collecting signatures for both Milinkevich and Kazulin, when she and her colleagues were subjected to intense police scrutiny.
"Our nomination group was turned upside down by police last week. Police officers even called at our homes and workplaces," Kudlatskaya says. "They had orders to check everything. There were phone calls from the KGB. Now some members of the nomination group are going to stop collecting signatures because they were told [to choose between] collecting signatures or [keeping their] jobs."
Kazulin's presidential nomination group sent formal protest letters to the Central Election Commission and the Prosecutor-General's Office alleging obstruction of the collection of ballot-access signatures.
The group says its members were not admitted to a student dormitory of Yanka Kupala State University in Hrodna, while officials in Slutsk, Minsk Oblast, refused to register the gathered voter signatures.
The group also alleged that some of its members were pressured to quit the signature collection for Kazulin, and that unauthorized individuals in Vitsebsk and Minsk collected signatures for Lukashenka at workplaces during work hours, which is forbidden by the Electoral Code.
Sometimes the approach is less direct, as Alyaksey Lapitski, who is collecting signatures for Milinkevich, reported from Zhodzina: "What's happening is that they're misinforming people in the factories on a mass scale -- they are saying that if you sign for Lukashenka, you have no right to put your signature down for any other candidate. This is wrong. We have asked the electoral commission to take appropriate action."
The intimidation is not always so blatant and clumsy. In December, one of the few surviving opposition newspapers, Salidarnasts, was forced to close down after Belposhta, the state postal service, decided to remove it and two other opposition papers from its distribution service.
That followed the decision just three months earlier by Belsayuzdruk, the state monopoly that runs the nationwide network of kiosks and newsstands, to terminate its contract for the sale of "Narodnaya volya," another opposition paper still clinging on to existence.
A 27,000-copy print run of "Narodnaya volya" was stopped on 9 January on its way from a printing plant in the Russian city of Smolensk and offloaded at the district police department in Vitsebsk Oblast.
And in an attempt to neutralize any attempt by the opposition to mobilize popular support through public rallies -- as in Ukraine's Orange Revolution last year -- parliament introduced legislation in December that makes it a crime both to discredit the name of Belarus abroad -- a catch-all offence open to wide interpretation -- and to train people to take part in street demonstrations.
President Lukashenka is taking no chances.