INSIDE the faceless apartment blocks and along the neat boulevards of the Byelorussian capital, people are pondering how to respond to the nationwide referendum this coming Sunday asking whether they wish ``to preserve the USSR.'' ``Yes, of course,'' snaps back Zoya Norkina, as if the question hardly needed to be asked. ``What are we without a union,'' the 36-year-old surgeon continues, peering from under her fur hat.
But isn't that a vote for President Mikhail Gorbachev, she is asked.
``Is Gorbachev so bad?'' she retorts.
Such replies are frequent in the streets of Minsk, far more so than a similar random poll might find among the residents of the Soviet capital.
From the streets to the halls of the government, the country's fifth-largest republic seems ready to deliver Mr. Gorbachev a firm majority in favor of his vision of the union.
``The more we delay the establishment of a new union, the more we depart from it,'' Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich says firmly. ``Now everyone is waiting for the results of the referendum.''
A ``yes'' vote is an endorsement of the draft treaty of union currently being prepared under Gorbachev's auspices, even if the republican negotiators and their parliaments don't agree on the final text before the vote takes place, the brusque former economic planner argues.
``People are voting for an idea - whether or not there will be a union.... I would like to look into the eyes of any [republican] parliament after the people vote `yes,''' Mr. Kebich says, with a slight threatening undertone.
Some 6 of the 15 Soviet republics have refused to even hold the March 17 vote, and others have altered the question or added others.
But in this Slavic republic of Byelorussia (``White Russia''), a placid conservatism prevails. It is for this reason, White Russians say, that Gorbachev suddenly appeared here two weeks ago for his only campaign swing before the referendum.
``This is the only republic he can go to quite freely,'' says a bearded deputy to a local Soviet (council) who refused to give his name. ``Even in the Ukraine he wouldn't get the supportive reception he got here.''
Byelorussia stands firm
A joke widely told here acidly asserts there are only two socialist republics left in the world - Byelorussia and Cuba.
Indeed, from the Kremlin's embattled ramparts, Byelorussia must seem like a Communist Camelot. Alone among the non-Russian republics, nationalism is a weak force here. The Communist Party remains firmly in power, with the republic led by moderate Communists of a reformist bent. The state-run economy functions well enough to keep stores filled with meat, milk, and cheese, items not easily found on Moscow shelves.
Historically, White Russia has never existed as a separate nation-state. The area now defined by the republic's borders was ruled for long periods of time, however, by neighboring Lithuania and Poland, giving the people and their language a clear cultural distinction from their Great Russian brothers to the east.
More than seven decades of Communist rule have further dulled nationalist consciousness, argues Zinon Pozdniak, the tall, balding historian who heads the pro-independence Byelorussian National Front (BNF).
The Communist Party followed a philosophy of ``national negation,'' he says, symbolized by the virtual elimination of the Byelorussian language in schools. The BNF, which was founded in 1988 and advocates independence, democracy, and anticommunism, has failed to generate the kind of mass movement seen in the Baltics and other republics.
Opposition is vibrant
Still, the BNF is the core of a vibrant opposition faction in the 345-member parliament. It leads the Byelorussian Popular Front, a group of 37 deputies which also includes the Social Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, and others. Along with the loose Democratic Club of liberal Communists numbering 80 to 100 deputies, the democratic movement has been able to wield considerable influence on the Communist government.
The BNF's greatest support comes from its role in forcing the disclosure of government data showing the full extent of the damage done by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. About 20 percent of the republic's 10.2 million people live on land contaminated by the radioactive fallout which drifted north into Byelorussia from the reactor site in northern Ukraine, Mr. Pozdniak says.
No one can escape Chernobyl's lingering pall, from the reports of growing illness among children to signs at the central market warning shoppers not to buy food unchecked for radiation levels. Gorbachev's visit to the most contaminated areas and promises of aid did little to alleviate deep feelings of neglect.
``Gorbachev should have come here in April 1986,'' engineer Alexander Stashevski says sharply.
``When you are in trouble, help should be offered immediately, not five years later. And we have to see what kind of assistance it will be - he knows how to talk.''
Such feelings of resentment make the referendum a dilemma for many Byelorussians who favor union but feel the vague referendum formula of ``a renovated federation of equal sovereign republics'' leaves much unanswered.
``The formulation is not correct, because the basic principles of the new union haven't been developed yet,'' says Mr. Stashevski, who identifies himself as a liberal Communist. ``The dictatorship of the center and the mere proclamation of equality should be discarded.'' He says he favors a European Community-style association.
Such sentiments are reflected in the stance of the republican leadership, which wants a union in which the republics control most aspects of day-to-day administration.
All taxes should be collected by republican governments, argues Kebich, with only enough funds passed on to the central government to pay for specific programs such as defense, space, and all-union energy, rail, and communications systems.
The republics should develop their own ties to foreign countries and companies, adds Kebich, who just returned from a trip to Japan.
Support for Yeltsin
The Byelorussian leadership of Kebich and President Nikolai Dementei moved cautiously a couple of months ago to back Russian President Boris Yeltsin's concept of forming a new union on the basis of a horizontal compact of the three Slavic republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia, along with the heavily Russian-populated republic of Kazakhstan. At one point, the leaders of the four were to meet here in Minsk to sign an agreement.
But pressure from the Kremlin and distrust of Mr. Yeltsin's aims put the plans on the shelf. And now they deny any intent to oppose Gorbachev.
``This is not a parallel union,'' says Kebich, whom many say was a key backer of the idea. ``It is a desire to establish a new union,'' he adds, dismissing the meeting proposal as ``just the design of certain political circles,'' a clear reference to Yeltsin.
BNF leader Pozdniak has a sympathetic view of their situation.
Perhaps not unlike many other White Russians, ``Kebich is the kind of leader who knows and understands more than he can accomplish.''