Russia has been putting the squeeze on Belarus, trying to get a foothold in the Belarusan economy, and a presidential election there Sunday could prove to be a significant moment in that quest.
Not that the outcome is in much doubt. President Alexander Lukashenko, who for 16 years has ruled with a dictatorial hand, is a likely shoo-in for a fourth term in a race that pits him against nine other candidates. But he has been steering his country on a zigzagging course - now antagonistic to Russia, now friendly - and recently trying to present a more acceptable image to the West.
If Western governments accept Sunday's vote as more or less legitimate - something they haven't done in past elections - it could give Lukashenko some standing in his negotiations with Moscow. He is clearly popular among Belarusans, noted Irina Kobrinskaya, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank. But the playing field has hardly been level.
About 90 percent of TV news time is devoted to Lukashenko's campaign. Workers for other candidates have been attacked and harassed. One candidate, Yaroslau Ramanchuk, was in what he calls a suspicious car accident last week, and on Monday, he showed up for a meeting with students and professors in Minsk, the capital, only to learn that city authorities had closed down the hall where they were to gather because of ""problems"" with the sewage system.
An opposition activist depicted as a bikini-clad gay on national TV. Leaflets telling lies about a presidential hopeful. An honors student suddenly expelled from university after appearing in a video making fun of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Although the election campaign has been the most free seen since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, it has been tainted by vicious propaganda and mysterious reprisals against opposition candidates and their supporters.
It has also been shadowed by the hanging death of an activist close to a top Lukashenko challenger.
An unprecedented nine candidates are running against Lukashenko, and they have been granted unusual freedom to campaign. The candidates have been given time to debate on state television and radio — the country has no independent broadcasters — although Lukashenko has not participated.
The comparative openness apparently reflects Lukashenko's desire to improve relations with Europe and the United States amid troubled relations with longtime patron Russia. But Lukashenko appears to have no desire for a genuinely competitive election, and dirty tricks have abounded.
Lukashenko is courting both Russia and the West. He needs cheap oil and gas from Russia to keep the Soviet-style state-dominated economy functioning and Russia wants a cooperative leader in a country lying between its borders and three NATO members. The West, offended by Belarus' dismal human rights record and repressive politics, is eager to see signs of reform.
"Lukashenko must make concessions to the West and create a democratic facade in these elections," said independent political analyst Aleksandr Klaskovsky. "But in exchange, he has turned on the machine to discredit opponents to full capacity."
A recent documentary on Belarus' state-controlled Channel One portrayed the campaign staff of a top opposition candidate, Vladimir Neklyayev, as a gang of homosexuals, pedophiles, drug addicts and swindlers.
In the film, an unnamed bearded man identified as a member of Neklyayev's campaign was shown posing for photos in a purple bikini and then in a silk nightgown. The film also accused Neklyayev's activists of document forgery and possessing child porn and illegal drugs. Neklyayev says the movie is nothing but lies.
Opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov complained that voters in the city of Brest have been given fake leaflets purportedly from his campaign that urged NATO membership for Belarus — which he opposes. Sannikov blames Lukashenko supporters.
"Government propaganda is trying to humiliate all democratic candidates in any possible way," said Neklyayev.
Even the sudden appearance of an ice-skating rink on one of the Belarusian capital's central squares raised questions about Sunday's presidential elections — the square is where opposition activists plan to rally to protest a vote count they're sure will be fraudulent.
Sannikov and Neklyayev on Saturday repeated their calls for protesters to assemble after the polls close on October Square — even though a slippery sheet of ice has been laid down across almost the entire expanse in the past couple of days. In previous winters, a rink has taken up only a small portion of the square, where large protests arose after the 2006 presidential vote.
Nonetheless, "we are going to stand for our rights there," Neklyayev said.
Lukashenko himself has been the target of campaign jabs. In a video clip that went viral in Belarus, two bulky louts show up at the door of an old woman and pressure her to sign up as a Lukashenko voter. Her grandson snatches her passport before the men can jot down her details.
The video's creator, a state broadcasting company employee, was fired, and the college student who played the grandson was kicked out of school, according to the opposition organization Charter 97.
The group, whose founders include Sannikov, remains haunted by the September death of another of its founders — Oleg Bebenin, who was found hanging in his summer home. Under pressure from the West, Belarus allowed Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe investigators to probe the death.
The investigation concluded it was suicide, but Charter 97 suspects foul play and complained that investigators did nothing but review evidence provided by local authorities they say are biased. The group says Bebenin left no suicide note and had shown no signs of despair that would lead to suicide.
There has also been concern that Lukashenko's regime is stuffing ballot boxes in early voting that began Tuesday.
The OSCE, which has sent a large international observer mission to Belarus, noted in a report last week that Belarus this year adopted laws requiring ballot boxes used in early voting to be sealed at night. But it is unclear how closely that regulation is being followed.
Valentin Stefanovich, coordinator of a group of independent Belarusian election observers, said Friday that "during the period of early voting, the authorities began the falsification process that was seen in all previous elections."
He also claimed that students, soldiers and workers in state enterprises are being forced to take part in the early voting. All those sectors of the population are seen as especially vulnerable to pressure to vote for Lukashenko.