Belarus leader loved by many of his people



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

"Finally we are living 100 percent," the retiree says. "If they bring Lukashenko down, all is lost!"

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.

Popular support for Lukashenko, who has ruled this former Soviet republic of 10 million since 1994, is rooted in his populism, the near-absence of independent news media and in the country's history.

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.

Independent polls estimate Lukashenko to have the support of some 60 percent of Belarusians.

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.

State media also praise Lukashenko for turning Belarus into a stable and prosperous country against a backdrop of many ex-Soviet republics that are experiencing economic hardships and violent ethnic conflicts.

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.

"All those grandmothers remember the war and when they see footage on television of schools that are being blown up and roofs collapsing they understand how important it is just to be safe," said independent analyst Yaroslav Romanchuk, referring to attacks and disasters in Russia.

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

Unlike the Soviet era, when consumer goods were often in short supply, the grocery store in the village of Krynichny, some 175 miles from the capital, now has plenty of goods to offer - and the Azheniloks can afford them.

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

Lukashenko has kept 80 percent of the economy under state control, and the economy is growing, reportedly by as much as 9 percent annually in recent years.

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.

The government recently awarded Ivan, a 43-year-old worker, his wife and daughter one of the newly built white brick houses in Krynichny. Ivan, who was reluctant to give his last name to a stranger for fear of attracting attention, is grateful to Lukashenko.

"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.

But analysts dismiss the agricultural towns project as a mere showcase. They say building housing for young workers without restructuring plants and collective farms and bringing in new technologies will not produce profits.

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.