MINSK, Belarus — Those who missed the highlights of American history in their civics class had only to turn on the television last week in Belarus, a small nation on Europe's eastern border where old Soviet-era propaganda machines are kept lovingly lubricated.
The program, "America Without Makeup," described Richard Nixon's attempt to bug Democratic campaign offices in 1972, Ronald Reagan's covert sale of weapons to Iran, the Pentagon's arming of Iraq and murky hints of conspiracy behind the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
"It's not for nothing that people say democracy demands sacrifice," a narrator commented wryly. "Money doesn't smell -- that's the main principle of American democracy."
Here in Belarus, President Alexander G. Lukashenko has a stake in giving democracy a black eye: The U.S. government is spending more than $9 million a year here on attempts to develop a sophisticated political opposition and a well-informed electorate, tools for combating one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.
Voters go to the polls today for an election that is widely expected to hand Lukashenko, Belarus' president since 1994, a third five-year term. In echoes of recent revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the opposition plans to muster thousands in the streets to demand a free election.
Belarus state security, still known as the KGB, threatened Monday to charge protesters "who try to destabilize the situation" with terrorism. That prompted an immediate protest from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent observers to monitor the balloting.
"I am particularly shocked ... that peaceful demonstrators could face charges of terrorism, carrying a sentence of eight years' imprisonment to the death penalty," OSCE Chairman Karel De Gucht, the Belgian foreign minister, said in a statement Friday. "Is that a way to conduct democratic elections?"
"We haven't seen such a politicization of people since perestroika," said opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich, referring to the era that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. "The reason is not socioeconomic. It's a moral protest. People don't want to live in fear and humiliation. I call it a revolution of the spirit."
Lukashenko's government has all but shut down the independent media, arrested hundreds of opposition campaign activists, kicked and beaten one presidential contender during a campaign rally, expelled students and reportedly fired state workers who did not toe an ideological line that reads like a reissue of the Communist-era Pravda. The KGB has been accused of operating secret death squads responsible for some of the disappearances and deaths of half a dozen journalists, businessmen and political opponents since 1999.
Why, then, does a recent InterMedia poll show Lukashenko drawing an easy 52.9% of the vote, far ahead of his rivals?
Belarus officials say it is because they have succeeded in doing what the conventional wisdom in the West says is not possible: maintaining a state-run economy with one of the strongest growth rates in Europe, generating increases in wages and pensions, boosting productivity and minimizing the disparities in wealth that have destabilized so many of the former Soviet republics in their transition to market economies.
State-owned oil refineries here buy Russian oil and sell its products to Europe at a hefty profit. Collective farms abound and have been merged with profitable enterprises, such as tractor companies, to bring their balance sheets out of the red. Unemployment is officially at 1.5%, although thousands more may simply be unregistered.
The World Bank does not know quite what to make of the model, but said in a November report that it wouldn't last without major reforms.
Advocates of overhaul say the entire economy is operating on the good graces of neighbor Russia, which buys large quantities of Belarusian goods and sells natural gas to its closest ally at subsidies worth an estimated $3 billion a year.
Still, many Belarusians say they are ready to vote again for Lukashenko, if only for the sake of stability and his pledge that the government will keep paying pensions and salaries on time.
"People want to live quietly. They want stability, they want jobs, they want their children to walk safely in the streets," said Yelena Yeseyeva, 40, a bookkeeper at a state-owned communal services company. "I think the president has chosen the right way."
Yet support for Milinkevich, a U.S.-educated physicist chosen by a broad coalition of pro-democracy parties, and Alexander Kozulin, a former university rector and leader of the Social Democratic Party, has grown among Belarusians who say the nation's economic gains are illusory and its growing climate of repression intolerable.