Europe's 'last dictator' faces polls

Sunday's presidential vote in Belarus pits Soviet-style leader against faltering opposition.

To his critics, Alexander Lukashenko is the "last dictator in Europe," who wants to keep Belarus a Soviet-style fiefdom.

The State Department has deemed as "credible" reports from former KGB and other security officers linking him to "death squads" that resulted in the disappearance of several opponents.

But here, on the impoverished state farm where he was boss in the late 1980s, Lukashenko is a beloved, if fearsome, father figure. This rural region east of Minsk is a bedrock of support for Lukashenko, who seeks reelection in a vote this Sunday being closely watched by international observers.

"We know him personally," says milkmaid Larisa Boronova, her muddy toes protruding from one shoe, "and what we hear about him [as president] is more than wonderful."

Strategically placed as the western anchor of Russia's modern sphere of influence - as a budding unity deal between Minsk and Moscow attests - Belarus can serve as either the limit of NATO's eastward expansion in Europe, or as a Russian gateway to the West. But the West has made clear that ending Belarus's current isolation will depend on respect for democracy.

During Lukashenko's seven-year tenure, opponents have been harassed; newspapers raided and hassled, or their print runs stolen. The KGB - which, unlike its Russian counterpart, hasn't changed its name here since Soviet days - bugs phones and confiscates computers.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko accused the opposition of serving "Western puppet masters," and declared that he would kick out the US ambassador and head of the European observer team after the election.

While campaigning last month, Lukashenko scoffed at his detractors: "What totalitarianism? What dictatorship? We have just ensured order."

Lukashenko supporters point out that pensions and salaries have been paid on time. Belarus has also escaped the mayhem and uncertainties that plagued Russia and other ex-Soviet states during the 1990s.

"Our president divides society like an ax that leaves no one indifferent," says Alexander Feduta, an independent analyst and former Lukashenko insider in Minsk.

"The older generation sees Lukashenko as a flashback to Soviet times, when everyone was equally poor, and no one rich," he says. "They chose him the way Robin Hood was chosen in Sherwood Forest, as a noble thief. They don't recognize that change has to come."

Though the president's support is more than 40 percent, it remains flat and may actually be 20 percent in "crystallized" support when the "fear factor" is measured in, says pollster Andrei Vardomatski, head of the Novak group, an independent polling organization. He forecast Lukashenko's 1994 election victory to within 1.5 percent, and has polled regularly every since.

Lukashenko hopes to win in one round with at least 50 percent in the election, which allows voters to cast a ballot for no candidate.

Vardomatski's figures show opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik, a bland veteran trade unionist, jumping from almost zero to nearly 20 percent support in recent weeks.

The opposition - which has received heavy US and Western backing - is calling for street protests if they lose.

"We are waiting for victory, and if the results don't add up, there will be a cry of indignation that will lead to clashes. The opposition could provoke unrest, and seize victory in a coup d'état," warns Jaroslav Romanchuk, an opposition leader and deputy editor of the Belorusskaya Gazeta newspaper.

People have been bamboozled by campaign slogans that proudly recall payment of the $35 per month pensions, he says, while those in Lithuania are $100, and Poland $200.

"That is like saying Belarus is good, because we get more calories than North Korea," Mr. Romanchuk says.

Still, Belarussians are famously passive after a history marked by regular foreign occupation. Fully one-quarter of the population died during World War II as both the Nazi German and Soviet armies swept back and forth across its plains.

"When there is a law of power in the country, fear comes out and starts controlling everything," says Tatiana Ptratsko, head of the Belarussian Helsinki Committee human rights group in Minsk. "Chaos in Belarus is impossible--even if a horse won the election, there would be no chaos."

The fear of such chaos is one reason for Lukashenko's support down on the Gorodets State Farm, where his former employees say a firm hand is what Belarus needs.

"When Lukashenko was director, he dictated his rules and everybody listened," says welder Viktor Jutsov, as a rooster plucks at a hole in front of his ramshackle house. "When he said something to a tractor driver, he never had to repeat it."

The firm hand is also the hand that gives, the workers say, fondly remembering new cars and tractors when Lukashenko was boss, and his rescue of the farm from bankruptcy.

"I can't be more grateful to anyone than Lukashenko," says Ms. Boronova, the milkmaid, as she carries her baby granddaughter along a dirt road in front of her dilapidated house. Boronova recalls the day more than a decade ago when Lukashenko came to her sister's wedding and offered the bridal couple keys to a new apartment.

This week during a campaign stop, Lukashenko opened a gleaming new primary school here for 200 children - in view of potato fields that workers still harvest with bare hands.

While democratic ideals may still be far from this rustic corner, they are gaining ground elsewhere in Belarus. Despite official hurdles, the press often writes critically of the regime. As the vote has neared, the widows of disappeared opponents have spoken out about what happened to their husbands.

But opposition to Lukashenko is poorly organized and weakened with infighting, and many say it is offering no credible alternative to voters Sunday. "The opposition arrived at the starting line without the ability to win the race," says Zinaida Gonchar, whose husband Viktor, widely seen as a potent political threat to Lukashenko, was the opposition leader until he disappeared two years ago.

"I never had any fantasies about Lukashenko and his regime," Mrs. Gonchar says. "I respect the common people, who protest BY holding portraits of the missing. But I despise the opposition that has not done anything for two years. They were waiting for the elections to speak up."

That chance may already be gone, says Alexander Shcherbak, an opposition leader in Lukashenko's hometown of Shklov. "Belarus is probably not yet ready to remove Lukashenko," he says. "During all those years Belarus was occupied, all the best people willing to stand up were persecuted and killed. And those close to the ground - the cowards - survived. It is even more difficult to stand up today."

"I was just given this bag, but it is too late," he says, pulling out anti-Lukashenko campaign materials including T-shirts saying "Let's say no to the fool!"

"Three months ago, this could have made a difference, but not now," he laments. "We've already lost."

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