Pomp and punch-ups in Belarus

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC correspondent in Minsk

Being in Minsk this week is like being back in the USSR.

At the giant Palace of the Republic, 2,500 delegates are attending a lavish Soviet-style congress.

Among them are tractor drivers and priests, factory directors and soldiers.

They are here to take part in the All-Belarussian People's Assembly. Their mission: to adopt a new five-year plan for the country, and to heap praise on their president - Alexander Lukashenko.

I can only watch the spectacle on TV.

Like all foreign journalists in Minsk - except Russian media - I've been banned from attending. "Sorry," Mr Lukashenko's press secretary had informed me over the phone, "There's no room!"

Large congresses are not the only communist-era icon that President Lukashenko has revived. He has restored, too, the Belarussian flag and anthem from Soviet times; the command economy and the police state.

Showered with praise

For the last 12 years, he has ruled Belarus with an iron hand, gaining a reputation in the West for being "Europe's last dictator".

You would not think so watching the People's Congress. One by one, speakers file to the podium to express their support for Mr Lukashenko and his policies.

Even Mr Lukashenko himself, in a marathon three-hour speech, came across at times as a gentle giant.

"Belarus," he declared, "is a friendly and peace loving nation." He slightly spoiled the image though moments later, adding that friendliness needs fists to protect it.

Perhaps that explains some of the violence in Minsk this week.

Police crackdown

When one of the candidates challenging Mr Lukashenko in this month's presidential election tried to get into the People's Assembly, he was knocked to the ground by plain clothes officers and beaten.

Alexander Kozulin was then dragged off and taken into custody.

Outside the police station, a number of his supporters and journalists were detained, too. One newspaper photographer at the scene was beaten up by police. He received concussion and a broken nose.

Later another presidential candidate from the opposition had problems.

Alexander Milinkevich attempted to hold an election rally in the city centre. But the authorities declared it illegal and sent in the security forces: hundreds of riot police blocked off the roads and dispersed a crowd of several thousand Milenkevich supporters.

"The authorities saw that the popularity of the opposition is growing rapidly," Yaroslav Romanchuk of the United Civil Party told me. "That's why they are now trying to block the opposition from campaigning. This isn't an election. It's a sham."

I have seen two very different pictures of Belarus here this week. The first - on a TV screen, painted in pomp and ceremony, depicting Belarus as a haven of stability with a leader adored by the nation. And a second Belarus - an unofficial one, not intended for live broadcast and public consumption; a country where political rivals are beaten and detained by police.

When they go to the polls in two weeks, it will be time for the people of Belarus to show how they view their country.