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Belarus Clings to Old Soviet-Style Ways - 2001-08-05

A presidential election will take place in Belarus in September, but observers say it is not expected to be free. That means Alexander Lukashenka will continue his dictatorial rule of the country that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From 1937 to 1941, Stalin's henchmen executed about 250,000 people at the town of Kuropaty in Belarus. In 1994, a memorial was erected at the mass gravesite that has served to rally the opposition to repressive rule in post-Communist Belarus.

Recently, the memorial was vandalized, perhaps a harbinger of the presidential election scheduled for September 8. Many Belarusians fear the election may prove as fragile as the memorial and also end up in ruins.

In 1994, in Belarus' last free election, a former KGB border guard and state farm boss, Alexander Lukashenka, became president and shortly after that dictator. He dissolved the parliament and appointed its successor.

He maintains close ties to Russia, which has 80,000 troops stationed in Belarus. He dreams of restoring the Soviet Union, says Walter Stankievich, editor of Belarusian Review, who has been on a visit to the United States. He points out that Belarus "still has a KGB with that title. The largest government supported newspaper is called Sovetskaya Belarusiya, and the flag is red with a little green stripe. Obviously, Lukashenka is totally connected with the idea of the past, the great Soviet Union that defended the east from the liberal west," he said.

Even so, Belarus has its share of liberals or at least those who want to escape a Soviet-style system. The opposition parties have now united behind a single candidate, Uladzimir Hancharyk, chairman of the trade union federation.

Mr. Stankievich says that with his roots in the Soviet nomenklatura, the opposition candidate is no radical reformer. But the opposition is a threat to President Lukashenka, if the election is not totally rigged.

That makes Mr. Hancharyk a target. Other serious opponents of the Lukashenka government have mysteriously vanished, including "a former minister of interior disappeared a year ago without trace," said the editor. "A state where things do not happen chaotically, not being able to find the perpetrators is just not believable. Recently, documents came out pointing very directly to the highest level of the government and their involvement in the disappearance and possible killing of this particular individual," he said.

Belarus repression often operates in the dark, says David Marples, professor of history at Canada's University of Alberta and author of Belarus: a Denationalized Nation.

He cites the case of a friend in Minsk who recently threw a tomato at the president. "He was sentenced to seven days for hooliganism, and then Lukashenka quite magnanimously said, 'let's release him.' So on paper, Lukashenka showed great leniency. But just a couple of days later," Mr. Marples said, "he had his thugs lie in wait for this friend of mine and beat him very severely so that he ended up in hospital. This is what happens in Belarus."

But Professor Marples says Belarus' tyranny hardly matches Stalin's. If anything, contemporary Russia exercises some restraint on Belarus. Some of the more democratically inclined Russian media feature critics of the Belarus government. "It's a vindictive, petty type of dictatorship, but it does not yet encompass all aspects of life. People can still have discussion groups. I have spoken over there regularly, and I always criticize the government. Occasionally, a couple of people will walk out, but I have been at liberty to go there and do that," said Mr. Marples.

Professor Marples says it is crucial for Western organizations to stay in Belarus, although many have left under pressure. President Lukashenka accuses the Western groups of favoring the opposition, which he has barred from coverage in the Belarus media. All the more reason, says Professor Marples, for some dissenting voice to be heard.