Belarus Leader Loved by Many of His People

Staff and agencies

18 March, 2006

By MARIA DANILOVA, Fri Mar 17, 12:26 PM ET

KRYNICHNY, Belarus - In his 71 years, Nikolai Azhenilok has never felt happier and more secure than under the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Critics abroad and at home call Lukashenko - who is widely predicted to win Sunday's presidential election - a ruthless dictator and a tyrant. But to many in Belarus he is a beloved benefactor, the "Batka," or father, as he likes to be called.

The former collective farm director appeals to many Belarusians as a common man who has risen through the ranks to fight for the interests of peasants and workers.

State television endlessly shows Lukashenko touring the country, where he is seen milking cows, descending into coal mines and playing hockey. At one meeting, Lukashenko told World War II veterans he shared their grief as the son of a soldier who died in the war. He is 51, and was born nearly 10 years after war's end.

Belarus was devastated in two world wars in the last century. One in three Belarusians died in World War II, and the nation has a history of yearning for peace and stability.

Retirees such as Azhenilok and his wife Tatyana, 63, are grateful to Lukashenko for their modest pensions.

"There used to be no bread. Now there is everything: bread, wine vodka," Azhenilok said. Before Lukashenko, "we were going around without underpants."

Under Lukashenko, Krynichny has enjoyed a revival. It has been turned into an "agrogorodok" or agricultural town - part of Lukashenko's program of building modern housing in villages to attract young workers to collective farms.

"With him we've begun living, I mean living a real life - people are getting apartments, houses and there is food in the store," he said.

And Romanchuk said that without hefty Russian economic aid, Lukashenko could not have afforded to raise pensions and salaries, and Belarus' Soviet-style centralized economy could soon falter.

The Russian aid yields cheap gas prices. And with the media under tight government control, there is scarce criticism of Lukashenko on the economy.

Many Belarusians sincerely believe in the success of their leader.

"We won't let anyone pour dirt on our Batka!" Tatyana Azhenilok exclaimed.