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Belarus Still Clings to Its Soviet Past

Times Staff Writer

As modern Europe continues its march east through the former republics of the Soviet bloc, this small country on the western border of Russia is where it has stubbed its toe.

Tiny Belarus -- stuck, as if in a Soviet time warp somewhere around 1975 -- has steadfastly resisted the lure of democracy and a market economy, and dared the world to talk it out of its inefficient state-owned factories, subsidized medical care, massive military parades and Young Communist League-like youth organizations.

When it comes to being Soviet, Belarus puts even Russia to shame.

Collective farms? Belarus still has dozens. Big statues of Lenin? Look no farther than one of the main city squares.

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Under President Alexander G. Lukashenko, the former Soviet republic of Byelorussia is a communist theme park for citizens nostalgic for the days when the world had two superpowers and everybody had a job.

Last month, the workers on the collective farm that has stood here, about 18 miles northeast of the capital Minsk, since the 1950s were given a raise, as were millions of other state workers and pensioners -- by presidential decree three days before Lukashenko won a referendum ending presidential term limits.

“Lukashenko is my father made of gold. Till the day of my death, I will support this man,” said former milkmaid Alexandra Bogush, chewing a dry sandwich one recent afternoon amid the crumbling concrete buildings and leaning fences whose state ownership is considered a quaint relic in most parts of the former Soviet Union.

But state employees like Bogush and elderly pensioners only count for so many votes. And the thousands of citizens who protested last month in Minsk, amid allegations of fraud in the referendum, suggested that the president’s dream was shared by a dwindling number of his citizens.

With Poland, Lithuania and Latvia on the country’s western borders now full members of the European Union and NATO, many Belarussians say they too aspire to join Europe.

Lukashenko, a handsome former collective-farm director who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has responded in traditional Soviet fashion -- calling out the KGB and consolidating his control.

The result, the U.S. ambassador to Russia said recently, was that a country that many people couldn’t find on the map had become “the black hole of Europe,” a sinister place of disappearances, political killings, repression and fear.

Sitting on the remnants of the Soviet Union’s heavily industrialized Belarussian military district, the country has emerged as one of the biggest weapons exporters in the world, selling an estimated $2 billion in arms last year. Its partners have included Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Syria, earning Belarussian companies U.S. sanctions.

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Last month, President Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Act, authorizing additional sanctions on Lukashenko’s government and mobilizing millions of dollars in aid to pro-democracy programs. “There is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind,” Bush said.

Officials in Minsk called the complaints from Washington “an openly hostile act.”

“There is no dictatorship here,” Lukashenko told reporters. “There is no infringing of the people. How can you infringe upon the people who trust me and constantly support me?

“I have made no secret of the fact that we are pursuing an authoritarian policy,” he said. “This is because we find ourselves in a situation where we have to control everything in order to preserve the country.”

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Five years ago, Viktor Gonchar, a former vice president of parliament and opponent of Lukashenko mysteriously disappeared, and at least four other opposition leaders and journalists also have gone missing.

On Oct. 19, opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko was hospitalized in serious condition after police slammed his head into the ground while breaking up a rally. The next day, a reporter for an independent newspaper, Veronika Cherkasova, was found dead with a slashed throat. There are some indications that Cherkasova knew her attacker, but her colleagues also wonder whether a series of articles she wrote a few months ago, “The KGB is Still Watching You,” sparked a political reprisal.

“Can you imagine what life is like here for people who are not even sure if they will wake up the next morning alive, for people who are not sure they will be killed by death squads or mutilated at a rally by the police?” asked Iosif Seredich, editor of the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will.

Belarus is in some ways a byproduct of the turmoil that rocked other ex-Soviet republics as they careened from communism to capitalism in the 1990s. Georgia and Ukraine plunged into poverty and corruption; Russia saw its prized state-owned companies sold for a song to a handful of billionaires while millions of citizens suffered.

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Lukashenko says he was determined to go slower to avoid those mistakes. The result is that 75% of Belarus’ industrial facilities remain in state hands. Employees who might have been tossed out by private owners are still making $200 a month working for the government.

“We are clearly saying, yes, the final target for us is building a democratic society,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh said in an interview. “But we should develop that slowly, and prepare our people for that. And certainly we will build a market economy as well. But imagine a country that has 100 big enterprises which served one-sixth of the whole world. Can you suddenly privatize them without destroying the whole country?”

Oleg Manaev, director of the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, called Lukashenko “an archetypal Soviet man” who swept to power on a popular wave of regret over the end of the Soviet Union -- a sentiment, he said, that persists in only a minority of the population.

“The nature of human psychology is that when people will something very, very strongly, they get it -- and they got Lukashenko,” he said. “Remember when you were a child, and you used a magnifying glass to concentrate the power of the sun? They concentrated so strongly their expectations and fears that they ended up making a fire.”

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Young Belarussians have no hope of getting work at the old state industries and, with the private sector in a state of arrested development, little chance of getting a job anywhere else. It was their ranks that made up the bulk of the few thousand protesters who marched down Minsk’s main boulevard during last month’s rally, chanting, “Say No to Lukashenko” -- before police armed with billy clubs moved in.

“Lukashenko is offering stability, but the stability he boasts of is a cemetery stability, where everyone is buried and no one complains,” said Yevgeny Afnagel, one of the organizers of the youth movement Zubr, which helped organize the protests.

“We never try to deceive young people,” said Vlad Kobets, another Zubr leader. “Membership in Zubr does not guarantee any financial gains or career promotion. We say we guarantee only three things: risk, adrenaline and action.”

They are countered by the Belarus Republican Youth Union, an organization of 250,000 young pro-government volunteers reminiscent of the Soviet-era Young Communist League. Active members get preferred admission to universities and good government jobs.

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The union staged concerts and rallies in support of the referendum. Members filled acquaintances’ cellphones with hip text messages urging a yes vote.

Igor Buzovsky, the 32-year-old second secretary of the union, said he was little troubled at the arrest and beating of young opposition activists after the referendum.

“It is my deepest conviction that when a person transgresses the law, he should realize that the law will respond, and if necessary, with force,” Buzovsky said. “And if a person takes to the street and demands more freedom, or expresses his discontent with the way things are, then maybe this person should live somewhere else.”


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