Stuck back in the U.S.S.R.

Belarus: While many former Soviet countries are progressing, one is led by a president who has nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union.

January 23, 2004|By Sabra Ayres | Sabra Ayres,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MINSK, Belarus -- In the 10 years since Alexander Lukashenko became president of this small former Soviet republic, political opponents have disappeared, journalists have been sent into internal exile and thousands have been beaten and jailed for participating in political demonstrations.

Heavy governmental regulations restrict religious expression by any group other than the Russian Orthodox Church, and the government has confiscated the buildings of a progressive, Belarussian language-only high school.

Though change has swept through some parts of the former Soviet Union -- Georgia has new youthful and democratic leadership ushered in by the recent "Rose Revolution" and the Baltic states are set to join the European Union this spring -- some of the former republics remain in a different era.

His critics have accused Ukraine's president, Leonid D. Kuchma, of ordering the murder of a muckraking journalist, and Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov's regime has arrested opposition leaders and held closed trials to determine their fate.

Here in Belarus, Lukashenko has become known as "Europe's last dictator," and the repression has been so severe that the country has been described as stuck in a Soviet-era time warp.

"The totalitarian state is back, and we are slipping toward the Soviet relationship between citizen and state," says Aleh Hulak, the director of the Belarussian Helsinki Committee, from the cramped, one-room Minsk office that he shares with 10 colleagues.

Last year's U.S. State Department human rights report described Belarus in terms that sounded like a police state: "The regime's human rights record remained very poor and worsened in several areas. The authorities effectively continued to deny citizens the right to change their government. At least one suspicious death of a political activist was reported. The authorities did not undertake serious efforts to account for the disappearances of well-known opposition political figures in previous years and discounted credible reports during the year regarding the regime's role in those disappearances. Police abuse and occasional torture of prisoners and detainees continued."

Lukashenko, a confessed admirer of Josef Stalin, has been accused of crippling economic development by refusing to take the path toward market reforms adopted over the border in oil-rich Russia and emerging Poland. Most of Belarus' 10 million people remain in desperate poverty, many employed by unprofitable state-owned industries. Collective farms represent the vast majority of the agricultural sector.

A year ago, Michael Kozak, the U.S. ambassador at the time, called Belarus the "black hole in the doughnut." Where its neighbors have moved forward, he said, Belarus has moved backward.

Lukashenko, 49, insists that the West dislikes him simply because he makes independent choices for his country. The United States says Lukashenko goes further, and accuses him of selling military technology to Iraq. The United States and European Union have refused to issue the president travel visas.

In 1995, Belarussian forces shot down an air balloon taking part in an international competition after it crossed airspace over the Polish and Belarussian border, killing two American pilots.

Three years later, Lukashenko turned off the electricity and water in a housing complex for Western diplomats. He said the buildings needed emergency plumbing repairs; the diplomats suspected he wanted to drive them out and move his friends in.

Last month, Lukashenko declared that Belarus would build up its military to defend itself against possible American invasion, saying the United States has started to "use military force toward countries that dare to implement independent foreign and internal policies."

Now, with a proposed referendum that would change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in 2006, human rights groups say Lukashenko is tightening his grip even more, especially on nongovernmental organizations like the Belarussian Helsinki Committee.

Over the past year, the government has shut down more than 15 social organizations on charges ranging from registration violations to cooperating in illegal demonstrations. As a result, few Belarussians say they can afford to associate with groups that speak out against the president.

"There is still that double code of conduct here when people say one thing in their kitchens and another thing in public, just like in Soviet times," Hulak says

Even the streets of Minsk look like a scene from a Cold War-era Hollywood film.

Statues of former Soviet heroes, dismantled years ago in Moscow, Kiev and other regional capitals, stand among the monumental Stalinist architecture. A bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared security agency that would become the KGB, keeps a watchful eye over the Belarus headquarters of the state security agency, still called the KGB here. The Soviet-era green and red Belarussian flag flies atop government buildings.

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