Thursday, August 18, 2005

President of Belarus holds fast to Soviet way of life

Those opposing Lukashenko's rule get the message

Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer

Grodno, Belarus -- The prosecutors did not tell Andzelika Borys which laws she had violated, or what her punishment might be. They just told her that if she broke "Belarusian law" again, she "would be punished."

In Belarus, a Kansas-size nation on Russia's western border, everyone knows what that means. In this last outpost of Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe, such warnings are reserved for politicians, journalists, businessmen or anybody else who has irked the regime.

For Borys, who is a leader of the country's small Polish minority, it means she is a supporter of the opposition -- small as it is -- to President Alexander Lukashenko. The authorities want her to stop, or face arrest -- or worse. Dozens of Lukashenko critics have simply disappeared in recent years, including an opposition leader and his business associate, and a television journalist. Some have been found dead.

"They want us to shut up," Borys said after her meeting with the prosecutors in Grodno, a Belarusian town on the border with Poland, two weeks ago. The prosecutors refused to comment.

Belarus, with a population of 10 million people, is a country that the 21st century seems to have forgotten. Once part of Russia's Slavic core, which included Ukraine as well as Russia, Belarus remains a miniature model of the old Soviet Union.

A walk down Independence Street, the main road in Belarus' capital Minsk, is like time travel back to the Soviet Union: A few cars drive slowly along the wide, clean but largely deserted avenue lined with huge, Stalin-era apartment buildings. The occasional pedestrian saunters in and out of the enormous, state-run GUM mall that sells crudely made, shapeless Belarusian clothes and souvenirs made of straw and amber. The only billboards on the street extol the heroism of Soviet soldiers in World War II.

Outside the capital, dilapidated wooden houses with caved-in roofs stand in the dying villages amidst golden and purple fields of wheat and buckwheat and emerald pastures, empty except for storks.

Most companies remain state-owned. Soviet-style collective farms, which constitute the majority of Belarus' agriculture, are rewarded by gifts of television sets. All students and state employees are forced to attend weekly "ideology classes," which hammer home the benefits of Lukashenko's "market socialism" and the dangers of Western-style democracy and capitalism.

Newspaper kiosks sell the Soviet Belarus and Respublika newspapers, which these days are dominated by two topics: the continuing wheat harvest and the alleged Western conspiracy to overthrow the 50-year-old Lukashenko.

"You will not succeed with the color revolution" -- a reference to Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004 -- "nor with the revision of state borders," the Respublika warned the regime's opponents in an editorial this month.

Alarmed by the popular uprisings that have toppled authoritarian regimes in three other former Soviet republics since 2003, Lukashenko -- a former head of a collective farm who has ruled Belarus by decree since he was elected president in 1994 -- is stepping up efforts to prevent what he sees as attempts by the United States and other Western countries to remove him from power.

"The Americans, the West" are preparing to "create certain groups that will head for Minsk ... and will make a revolution in the main square," Lukashenko said this month on Belarus' only, state-run television channel. "I want to warn you that ... we know how to stop the intervention."

The Russian government of President Vladimir Putin, which fears that Belarus, Russia's satellite for centuries, will go the way of another former ally, Ukraine, supports Lukashenko and helps keep the feeble Belarusian economy afloat by purchasing Belarusian wheat, corn and tractors and selling it oil and natural gas at subsidized prices.

To ensure that Belarus' nascent opposition does not gain steam the way the opposition had in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan or Belarus' southern neighbor, Ukraine, Lukashenko has silenced nearly all nongovernment news media and jailed, killed or "disappeared" his critics, international human rights groups say.

Lukashenko has even dug up Independence Square, the main Minsk plaza, which held up to 200,000 protesters during political unrest of the early 1990s -- so that "even if someone decides to protest, they will have no place to congregate," said Alexander Feduta, a former Lukashenko spokesman who is now an independent political analyst.

Over the last month, police in Grodno arrested six of Borys' colleagues from the Union of Poles for their ties to the Belarusian opposition, turning this tattered city of 322,000 people into the latest arena of Lukashenko's political repression. Police stormed the group's headquarters and reinstalled Borys' predecessor, who keeps the organization away from political activity. Borys was arrested during the raid but later released.

Belarus also has expelled three Polish diplomats, severely damaging crucial economic ties with its western neighbor. Lukashenko has accused Poland of trying to help the United States try to topple his regime with the help of 20,000 members of the Polish association Borys once led in Grodno.

To be sure, the Bush administration has made it clear it would like to see a different government in Minsk. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Belarus "an outpost of tyranny" and "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe," and Congress wants to add $5 million to Washington's annual $7 million aid package to Belarus to increase U.S. assistance to the country's independent media, human rights groups and programs that promote civil society.

Some opposition leaders hope that such aid, combined with the popular frustration over Lukashenko's dictatorial regime and the sense of stagnation in Belarus, will bring about what they expectantly call a "Cornflower Revolution" that would end the country's political and economic isolation.

"What happened in Ukraine -- that's our only hope," said Lyudmila Gryaznova, deputy chairwoman of the United Civil Party, one of the leading opposition groups. But many observers say Lukashenko's machinery of repression will be hard to overcome, in part because it has so successfully intimidated much of the population.

Lukashenko is eligible to run for a third term in next year's presidential election. In October, he won a referendum that scrapped a constitutional two-term limit. Western governments have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, but a Gallup poll last month showed that 48 percent of Belarusians believed Lukashenko should be re-elected.

Even some of Lukashenko's formerly most fierce critics admit they are often afraid to speak out.

Olga Zavadskaya, mother of television journalist Dmitry Zavadsky, who vanished five years ago, blames Lukashenko for the disappearance of her son. But Zavadskaya, who works as a dentist at a state-run clinic in Minsk, says she never talks about her son's disappearance at work because she is afraid to lose her job.

"There is a great sense of Lukashenko fatigue -- more and more people are becoming more frustrated," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But you don't get a sense that there's a great will of the public to protest. There's a lot of fear, a lot of levers the government can use to stop people from being politically active."