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Belarus’ President Holds All the Cards in Iron Fist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside a shabby apartment, in a building that has also seen better days, a small group of muscled, T-shirted young activists conspires under an unlikely banner--a black cutout of a buffalo pasted onto a white sheet.

Sworn to secrecy and mutual support, these are members of an organization known as Zubr--Belarussian for “bison.” They have adopted the animal as their symbol because it is noble, stubborn and noncarnivorous, and because it springs from their native soil. (The only remaining herd of European bison roams the Bialowieza forest, which straddles the Belarussian-Polish border.)

Zubr is on a quest: to nonviolently awaken opposition to another term of office for popular President Alexander G. Lukashenko in today’s presidential election.

It is often written that since the downfall of President Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, the balding, beak-nosed, mustached Lukashenko--a 47-year-old with a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and a penchant for roller-blading and hockey--is Europe’s last dictator.

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“Lukashenko has turned Belarus into a semi-fascist country that is heavily policed and totally controlled. . . . Lukashenko and democracy are two incompatible words,” the country’s preeminent living author, Vasil Bykov, said from his self-imposed exile in Germany.

The onetime Soviet republic attained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and since Lukashenko took over as president in 1994, he has not managed to stamp out all opposition. But he does govern with an authoritarian style. He has changed the national symbols, rammed through a new constitution that allowed him 2 1/2 extra years in office without an election, and employs a sycophantic state media apparatus that has built a cult of personality around him.

In this long-suffering nation of 10 million people on the wide flatlands between Poland and Russia that lost an estimated one-fourth of its population in World War II, the former head of a collective farm has brought back some of the stability and social order of the Soviet era.

He has also brought back an atmosphere of fear. At least four of his critics and political rivals have disappeared. Another died under mysterious circumstances. Former government prosecutors who fled to the U.S. have alleged the existence of a state-sponsored death squad, an accusation that the State Department has labeled credible.

But as the adage says, “where there is a dictator, there has to be a resistance.” And Zubr--which has staged stunts that include men in white coats chasing a roller-blading figure wearing a hockey mask down the streets of this capital--is among the groups that have sprung up to fill the bill.

As members explained in their clandestine meeting place last week, they see Lukashenko as part clown, part megalomaniac and part demon. Zubr, along with more overt opposition organizations, accuses the president of wanting to turn back the clock by creating Soviet-style institutions. They believe that he would sell Belarus’ assets to Russia--up to and including its independence--to further his ambitions.

For Lukashenko’s opponents, it is a foregone conclusion that the government will try to cheat in today’s voting. And for them, more than simply the next administration is at stake: The vote is a contest for Belarus itself.

“The people who support the regime are fighting only for their positions,” said a crew-cut young man from Zubr, who asked to be identified only as Vlad. “But we are fighting for our country, our freedom and our future.”

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Critics of Lukashenko say he has stacked the election deck in his favor by using state television, radio and newspapers to trumpet his candidacy while denying any platform to his chief adversary, union leader Vladimir Goncharik. They charge that election supervision, from the polling stations all the way up to the Central Election Commission, is controlled by officials loyal to the president. Especially irritating to them is a program allowing “early voting,” meaning there is a five-day period during which ballot boxes are taken away at night--and made vulnerable to tampering--by the government.

To counter fraud, nongovernmental organizations and opposition groups are planning a system of parallel election reporting. These observers say they will monitor the results made public at individual polling stations and compile their own count. If the official tally varies by more than a few percentage points, opposition groups say, they will consider that proof of cheating and mount street protests.

For weeks, the state media have been attacking such plans.

“We have been branded CIA agents. We get more coverage than Lukashenko’s rivals,” said Mecheslav Grib, head of one of the observer efforts. To him, that coverage implies that Lukashenko is frightened.

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Even so, few critics of the regime believe that Lukashenko will not prevail, by hook or by crook.

“He will definitely win, but the regime is already in agony,” said Pavel Sheremet, a Belarussian journalist who has investigated the cases of the president’s missing foes for Russia’s ORT television. Sheremet’s colleague and close friend, Dmitri Zavadsky, is one of the missing.

In time, Sheremet predicts, the scandal will cause Lukashenko to lose support and be jettisoned.

To maximize their chances of upsetting Lukashenko, the main opposition parties opted last month to unite behind Goncharik, 62, the head of the country’s trade union federation. A member of the former governing elite, he is considered a solid and decent--though unexciting--alternative.

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But Goncharik’s handicap is that he cannot make himself known. Unlike Lukashenko, he is rarely mentioned by the state media, except when being criticized. Under election rules, he did speak to the country during two 30-minute segments on state TV. But as a European diplomat observed, those appearances were sandwiched between boring pro-government propaganda shows, ensuring a minimal audience.

The result is that only voters motivated enough to attend a campaign rally or to search out one of the ill-funded opposition newspapers have been able to learn anything about Goncharik.

If the electoral process were free and fair, said pollster Alexander Sosnov, a former labor minister who heads an economic and sociological research institute in Minsk, the president could count on only about 40% of the vote and Goncharik on 25%. Anything less than 50% for Lukashenko will necessitate a runoff, he said, and in that case the president’s aura of invincibility will be tarnished and Goncharik might even win.

But like most of Lukashenko’s critics, Sosnov believes that the authorities are planning to rig the vote, and he doubts that Belarussians have the will to fight that.

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“Belarussians are used to being pummeled on all sides, and they think that in order to survive, you have to sit as still as a mouse when it is hiding under a broom, hoping it won’t be noticed,” Sosnov said.

A question looming above the campaign, and over all politics in this country, is what kind of state Belarus should be. The breakup of the Soviet empire provided the Belarussian people with their first opportunity in centuries to redefine themselves.

When patriotic Belarussians look back over their 1,000-year history, they consider its apex to have been when Belarussian lords and princes were partners in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania--a huge, loosely organized multiethnic state that existed roughly from the 13th century to the end of the 18th, and that also took in much of today’s Baltic states and Ukraine. Linked to the West through a union with Poland, the grand duchy was one of Europe’s largest states.

The simultaneous pulls on Belarus by Russia and the West continue today. Lukashenko in particular appeals to those who see their country’s past and future as inherently bound with Russia. His opponents are the opposite--they view their country as a separate, self-sufficient state that should carve out its own space in Europe.

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Lukashenko has championed a Russian-Belarussian union. He has steadily moved Belarus closer to Moscow, even proposing a common currency. And under his leadership, the Russian language has been given de facto primacy in Belarus at the expense of Belarussian, a related Slavic tongue. This makes Belarussian patriots like Bykov livid.

As the writer sees it: “The president of Belarus is deliberately trying to destroy the national sovereignty of the people of Belarus. One can hardly find another example in modern world history when a president of a sovereign nation--the person who should be the guarantor of his people’s interests--tries to do away with its sovereignty.”

To Bykov, it is obvious that Moscow’s hand is behind the Lukashenko phenomenon.

“Everything that has been happening under Lukashenko is nothing but the implementation of Russia’s overt and secret imperial plans and desires,” he said.

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But Bykov’s view is not shared by millions of Belarussians. They say they are content with the way Lukashenko--whom they sometimes refer to as their batka, or “daddy"--has been running things.

Svetlana Batseleva, a 65-year-old woman who proudly wears her insignia as a survivor of the World War II siege of Leningrad, said Lukashenko is someone in whom she and her generation take pride. He has kept the big factories and state farms operating. He has continued subsidies to keep down the prices of staples such as bread, milk and sugar. He makes sure that pensions are paid on time, he is a close friend to Moscow and he stands up to America.

“When I met my friends in Russia, they have sometimes asked if we could give our Sasha to them,” Batseleva said, referring to Lukashenko by the diminutive of his first name. “And I answered them: ‘You are never going to live to see it. Lukashenko is ours, and he suits us perfectly.’ ”


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