Belarus Turns Back The Clock
He reminisces about the Soviet era, admires Hitler, jails his opponents, and has alienated Western governments by kicking ambassadors out of their residences.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, President Alexander Lukashenko is rapidly becoming an international pariah for his harsh rule in Belarus, nestled in Eastern Europe between Russia and Poland.
Since he came to power in a 1994 landslide victory, this former state-farm boss has systematically pulled his country back to the Soviet days when dissidents were harassed, the news media were stifled, and economic privatization was anathema.
"He is power thirsty," says Andrei Sanikov, an official of the recently formed human rights group Charter 97, based in Minsk. "The atmosphere of control and fear is like the Soviet Union in the 1970s."
Mr. Sanikov resigned from his post as deputy prime minister in 1996 following a referendum used by Mr. Lukashenko to widen his presidential powers, weaken the judiciary, and muzzle the media.
Meanwhile, the president earned few friends when he defended his military after it shot down a gas balloon in September 1995, killing two Americans on board.
But his tough-guy image and rousing nationalist oratory have won the mustachioed president popularity among many of the nation's 10 million citizens. His desire to reunite with Russia and fellow Slavs strikes a chord among rural folk nostalgic for Communist glory (see story, below).
Those yearning for the days before the Soviet Union collapsed would savor the air in the capital, Minsk, and not just for the soulless heavy architecture. Political critics refrain from sensitive phone conversations because of bugs, complain of being followed, and wonder when their next stint in jail will be.
The capital felt frozen in time during holiday celebrations last week. Tanks rumbled through the streets, red banners festooned the city, and schoolchildren were deployed to sing patriotic songs.
Such displays did nothing to dampen the outrage of foreign governments, nine of whom withdrew their ambassadors when Lukashenko turned off the water and electricity in their residences last month.
It was dubbed the "sewer war" in the press. Lukashenko said he needed to carry out plumbing repairs in the luxury houses located in an area of Minsk known as Drozdy. But the buildings happen to stand near his house, and the common assumption is that he wants them for his friends.
The ambassadors left in a huff "for consultations," muttering about increased international isolation and violations of the Vienna Convention. Particularly angry was the US, which recently spent $800,000 on repairs for its building.
Lukashenko, however, portrays his small country as victimized by a bullying West. He insisted in a holiday address last Friday that Belarus should be taken seriously.
"We have bravely joined big-time politics on an equal footing, not as someone's vassal," he said. "The choice made by the republic may be unpleasant to some people, but in our country everything is done for the benefit of Belarussians."