A Favorite Battleground for Invaders Now Finds Freedom Tough to Bear
Struggling Belarus hopes aid will accompany union with Moscow
MINSK, BELARUS — BLIGHTED by war, dictatorship, and radioactive fallout, the country of Belarus has often seemed to its people to be doomed.
Now, warn leaders of the nationalist opposition, President Alexander Lukashenko is condemning his infant state to a new era of Russian tutelage, and stifling their hopes for an independent future as a European nation.
The most immediate target of their anger is the treaty deepening economic ties between Minsk and Moscow that Mr. Lukashenko signed last week amid much pomp at a Kremlin ceremony.
But more broadly, the fear here among independent businessmen, politicians, journalists and foreign observers is that the president - who is amassing dictatorial powers in a state reminiscent of the Soviet Union - is looking so hard to the East that the view to the West will be blocked.
Vasil Bykov, a prominent Belarussian novelist who has been called "the conscience of the nation," compares the four brief years of his country's independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union to "a moment when individual freedom and state freedom emerged on the horizon, waved to us, and then disappeared again."
Concerns are growing that Lukashenko's economic vision will entail a high political price.
"Of course it is easier for Belarus to reestablish trade ties with former partners than to set up new ones," says Peter Byrne, head of the local branch of the Open Society Foundation, set up by American philanthropist George Soros. "But they are doing that at the expense of human rights, public debate, and restructuring their economy."
Lukashenko's economic plan is based on re-creating the market that Belarus used to serve. His first step has been to seek economic integration with Russia. But as a former collective farm manager who candidly declares that he thinks the Soviet Union worked well, he has put a heavy political spin on his integration efforts.
Troubling the IMF
At the economic level, Belarus's real problem is not as much the loss of its old markets, says one Western observer, as its failure to introduce serious free market reforms.
Eighty percent of production is still in state hands, output has fallen every year since independence - last year by 8 percent - the average monthly wage is barely over $60, and government ploys to prop up the currency have both throttled exports and prompted the International Monetary Fund to suspend a $275 million loan.
Using his almost total control over the media, Lukashenko has managed to stifle most public criticism of his economic record, and some observers see his bid to integrate Belarus with its giant neighbor mainly as an attention grabber.
"Most of our president's moves toward Moscow are an attempt to distract attention from the disastrous effects of his economic policy," says Alexander Potupa, vice president of the Belarussian Union of Entrepreneurs.
There is no denying, however, that closer ties with Moscow are popular. The idea of tighter economic links won overwhelming approval in a referendum here last year. Partly, independent analysts say, this is because an aging population is nostalgic for the happier days of its youth, when the Soviet republic of Byelorussia enjoyed the highest standard of living in the Eastern bloc.
At the same time, nationalist sentiment is probably lower here than in any other former Soviet republic, as if the country's calamitous history had knocked the stuffing out of its inhabitants.
Belarussians have to look back more than 200 years for an experience of even approximate sovereignty, and they have to strain to discern their identity in the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Spending two centuries as the Westernmost outpost of the Russian Empire brought Russian Orthodoxy, Russian habits and language, and waves of armies to and fro that left destruction in their wake. Napoleon's Army marched through Belarus on its way to Moscow, and on its way back; the Eastern front in World War I was dug in trenches across the Belarussian plains; a quarter of Byelorussia's population - including most of its Jews - perished during World War II.
Seventy years of Communist rule from Moscow was capped by the Chernobyl disaster, that contaminated one-fifth of Belarus with radioactivity. "In 200 years, national consciousness can be beaten out of a people, as it was with us," acknowledges Ihar Hermianchuk, editor of the nationalist paper Svabada.
Nationalist feelings flickered to life after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but were smothered by inflexible nationalist movements, which, for example, insisted against popular sentiment on the exclusive use of Belarussian in schools.
Riding a swell of pro-Russian feeling, Lukashenko has launched a campaign against Belarussian symbols - rolling back the use of the language, and reverting to a Soviet-style flag. Demonstrators waving the red and white flag that Belarus adopted at independence have been clubbed by policemen.
With the tide of official and popular feeling running hard toward the East, and the country's old imperial master, Mr. Hermianchuk's plaintive insistence that "we see ourselves as Europeans - all our history and culture is European," sounds like a forlorn whistle in the wind.
And as Lukashenko dismantles democratic freedoms, it is uncertain how long dissenting voices like Hermianchuk's will be allowed to cry even in the wilderness: His paper is banned from the state printing house in Minsk, and must print in Lithuania.
Even the novelist Bykov, certain as he is that "our future is only in the West ... to build our home on the foundations of freedom and democracy," is unsure when that future might dawn.
"I call myself a pessimist," he says, with a grim smile. "I always want life to prove me wrong. But ... life only confirms my feelings."
BELARUS IN BRIEF
Political status: Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 25, 1991. It joined the Commonwealth of Independent States Dec. 21, 1991.
Area: 80,153 sq. mi. (slightly larger than Nebraska.)
Population: 10.4 million. Approximately 75 percent Belarussian, with Russians, Polish, and Ukranian minorities. Ethnic Belarussians speak a Slavic language closely related to Russian and Ukranian, though Russian is the primary language of most inhabitants.
Currency: Belarussian ruble
History: The region was part of the Kievan Rus state until the Mongols overthrew Kiev in 1240. Most of the region then passed to Lithuania (which joined with Poland in the 14th century). During that time the Belarussian language and nationality began to take shape. Russia acquired Byelorussia, or White Russia, when Poland was divided in the late 18th century. A major battlefield in World War I, it was reconquered by Red Army troops in 1922 following a declaration of independence in 1918. After World War II, the Soviet Union gained western regions that had been lost to Poland in 1921. The region was devastated by World War II and afterward underwent massive reconstruction, which was largely successful. It gained independence in 1991 with most of its Soviet-era leaders still in place.