Voters in Belarus go to the polls on 9 September to decide whether to re-elect incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox takes a look at Lukashenka's track record and the reasons why he has come in for strong criticism at home and abroad.
Prague, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- If Belarus's authorities had stuck to the letter of the 1994 constitution, this weekend's presidential elections would have been over and done with a long time ago -- two years ago, in fact.
But the constitution didn't take into account just how keen Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- a former border guard and collective farm director -- would be to hang on to power.
Lukashenka rose to prominence as a member of parliament's anti-corruption committee in the early 1990s.
Presenting himself as a straight-talking, fresh face standing against the old elite, Lukashenka -- within a short space of time -- built up enough support to win the 1994 presidential elections in a landslide victory, trouncing the favorite, Vyacheslav Kebich, a top member of the establishment.
Once in office, Lukashenka and Belarus's parliament soon clashed over his reluctance to pursue reforms. The power struggle culminated in a battle over rival referendums on rival draft constitutions shifting the balance of power in the country.
Lukashenka declared his referendum -- asking for the president to be given extra powers -- to be legally binding and promptly won a hefty majority in the 1996 vote.
Though the results were questioned, Lukashenka moved quickly to disband parliament and to hand-pick a new assembly according to his draft constitution.
Since then, critics point to a further slide into authoritarianism in the country.
Western governments declared last year's parliamentary elections rigged, and opponents say this weekend's poll is shaping up to follow a similar pattern.
They say the authorities have used a series of decrees to hamper opposition activities and that the campaign has been characterized by a clampdown on independent media.
Still, support for Lukashenka is high -- particularly among older voters nostalgic for the Soviet Union and appreciative of a state-provided welfare safety net. He is even known in some circles as "Batka," a term of affection for a benevolent father figure.
Lukashenka continues to embrace Soviet-era economic policies, with much of the economy remaining in state hands and enjoying modest growth.
Lukashenka rejects all criticism and accuses the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- which has a monitoring mission in the country -- of working with the opposition.
He addressed Western concerns about the fairness of the elections last month by saying:
"Our elections should not be carried out according to any foreign scenario or 'cheat-sheets,' but exclusively according to the laws of our sovereign state and, as sitting president, I guarantee the people of Belarus that our election will take place in exactly that way."
Lukashenka is known for his strident comments and has had frequent run-ins with Western governments.
In 1998, he expelled foreign ambassadors from a housing complex in the capital, Minsk, after a diplomatic tussle over plans by the authorities to carry out repairs in the compound.
An avid sports fan, Lukashenka once reportedly canceled a meeting with a Council of Europe official because he had a soccer match to attend instead.
That incident may have been more amusing than serious, but Lukashenka's opponents find little to laugh about.
Demonstrators are frequently beaten or arrested, and in recent years several prominent politicians have disappeared.
This summer, two former Belarusian investigators given asylum in the United States alleged that Lukashenka's regime is responsible for murders carried out by a so-called "death squad."
Last month, two men identifying themselves as KGB agents in a videotape accused Interior Ministry forces of murdering two of the missing men. Lukashenka said the tapes had been sent from the West to poison people's minds against him before the election..