News Column

New East network: Inside the post-Soviet world: Belarus: at least one revolution behind the rest of the world: As the Guardian launches a new site focusing on ex-USSR countries, Mark Rice-Oxley finds Soviet habits die hard in Minsk

June 9, 2014

Mark Rice-Oxley

Tucked away behind the charmless apartment blocks and broad thoroughfares so beloved of Soviet town planners, the Minsk History Museum boasts Belarus's best exhibition of the summer. Back in the BSSR is a nostalgia fest of Soviet memorabilia and propaganda that takes visitors back a generation to a time when this was one of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.

"It was my time, so I remember it fondly," says Maya Borisovna, a septuagenarian guide, as she explains the artefacts on display. "But now we live better. There are things in the shops. It's completely different".

Or is it? Some would argue you don't have to go to the exhibition to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Lenin dominates a city square. There's even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us.

And then there is the leader. This summer, Europe's longest-serving ruler - the only post-Soviet president that Belarus has had - marks 20 years in office. Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, parliament has been emasculated, political opponents driven into exile or disappeared, and the media silenced. This is a country where the KGB is still called the KGB. It is the last European country to use the death penalty - a bullet to the back of the head.

In the west, they call Lukashenko Europe's last dictator, but he doesn't care. Better a confident dictator than a chaotic democrat, he argues, pointing to the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as a handy counterpoint. But below the surface lurks a nagging question: could the same upheaval happen here? And if not, how much longer will this 59-year-old despot last?

In the pantheon of dictators and autocrats, Lukashenko is a middleweight, vain and verbose but not bloodthirsty.

And yet the man who likes to be called "batka" ("father") is omnipresent. Night after night, his every move leads the country's absurd TV news, whether he is inspecting a tractor, ticking off the cabinet, arriving in Kazakhstan, or all three.

Before last month's world championships of his beloved ice hockey, he was taking no chances. Concerned about possible dissent, dozens of activists were rounded up and sent to jail.

Natallia Pinchuk fears for the future.

"It's really hard to say everything I want to because in this country you pay for what you say," says Pinchuk. Her husband, the human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, did just that, jailed in 2011 for four-and-half years on tax avoidance charges that he and human rights organisations call spurious. Pinchuk was allowed just one visit last year. "It's like a conveyor belt," she says. "People are put in jail, then freed, they criticise the authorities and they are put back again."

She says her husband has been ostracised by fellow prisoners out of fear of political contamination. She is concerned about his health in the labour camp at Babruysk. "People come out of Babruysk with no teeth. It's the lack of vitamins. The food is a joke." She is pinning everything on February 2016, the month when he should be released: "But nothing's certain in this country."

One thing certain since Lukashenko came to power is the result of elections. He likes to win, and a favourite figure is 80% - not quite Soviet levels of approval but enough to draw condemnation from observers inside and outside Belarus.

"There hasn't been a fair election since the first one [Lukashenko] won in 1994," says Andrei Sannikov, the opposition leader who stood for president in 2010, only to find himself jailed shortly after.

Lukashenko's fourth presidential election should, in theory, have been just as straightforward. He is not unpopular - some estimates suggest half of all Belarusians broadly approve. Belarus's election commission declared him the 2010 winner before the polls had even closed.

Sannikov joined tens of thousands of demonstrators in Minsk for an unprecedented show of outrage. For a few moments, Sannikov says, there was euphoria, and a sense that change might be afoot. Then the KGB stepped in.

"I don't remember how I was first kicked, but I was on the ground and then I lost consciousness." On the way to hospital, he says, KGB officers pulled him and his wife from a car and beat him again before taking him into detention.

Sannikov got five years for "organising mass disorder". Sannikov was eventually freed, soon after new EU sanctions were announced against Belarusian officials in March 2012. "When I was released we organised a press conference and immediately after it, Lukashenko said that if there was another word we would be in jail again in two hours," Sannikov says. He now lives in exile in Warsaw.

Lukashenko argues that under his leadership his people have education, healthcare and security. He claims that after centuries of subjugation, annihilation and reconstitution, the country has avoided the evils of terrorism, separatism, and "banditism".

"Do you think I stay in power just because I revel in it?" he said in a recent interview. "Permit me to be immodest, but I did something for this country. I don't want all of it to come crashing down in an hour."

The crisis in Ukraine hasn't quite threatened that, but it has rattled Lukashenko. Many have asked: if Russia could take Crimea, then why not Belarus? Of Belarus's 10-million strong population, 15% are ethnically Russian. Belarus is far more Russian than Ukraine: the language ubiquitous, the culture almost indistinguishable. Lukashenko said recently that he saw his country as "the most pro-Russian province" and agreed that Crimea was part of Russia.

Yet he has also come to Kiev's defence. In the face of prolonged, pro-Russian separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, he has been vocal in saying the country must not split, and pledged his support for the newly elected western-backed Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko.

Lukashenko maintains Russians are Belarusians' best friends, but warned: "No matter who comes to Belarusian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin."

Taking sides is problematic: too pro-Kiev and he looks like another thorn in the Russian side. Too pro-Russian and he looks like a man happy for Moscow to start taking over its former Soviet frontier lands. Belarus (White Russia) and Ukraine (Borderlands) are both defined in their very name by their relationship to the Russian heartland.

Roman Yakovlevsky, a political analyst with opposition sympathies, says: "The entire country is divided over Ukraine. The authorities were scared, but the people are also scared when they see blood spilled and civil war."

Belarus has a long history of invasion, war and destitution. In the second world war, a third of the population died. The overriding feeling is: never again.

"Ukraine frightened people here," says one diplomatic source. "They see that Russia can take what they want if they don't like what's happened. They realise that changing things through demonstrations is not an option."

The economy, meanwhile, slowly flatlines. "Belarus is in second-last position in Europe on life expectancy," says Stanislaw Shushkevich, a Soviet-era leader who ran against Lukashenko in 1994. "GDP per capita is two to three times lower than in Poland. We are the world's highest per capita consumers of alcohol. The Belarusian rouble is worth 2,900 times less than it was in 1993 against the Russian rouble."

European and American administrations have imposed sanctions on firms and individuals, though critics say they have had little impact. Belarus is dependent on Russian bailouts (Lukashenko returned from Moscow last month with another $2bn (pounds 1.2bn) credit) and energy subsidies, and 80% of the economy is in state hands. Lukashenko targeted growth in 2013 of nearly 9%. It came in at 0.9%.

Yauheni Preiherman, an independent thinktank analyst in Belarus, says surveys show up to two-thirds of young people would leave if they could. "I guess I'm among the minority of young Belarusians who do not wish to go," he says.

How much longer will "Europe's last dictator" last? Lukashenko says he will only step down if he loses an election or his faculties. Yakovlevsky says one thing is certain: Lukashenko will not quit. "He knows he can't just leave quietly," he says, pointing to possible legal action that could be taken against him by whatever administration followed him. "There are still questions about the people who disappeared under his rule."

Elections are due in 2015, but nothing new is expected. At best, Sannikov hopes they may allow a focus for discontent.

It is likely that Lukashenko's fate will be decided by the two big heavyweights he constantly dances between: Moscow and the west. If the west can help Ukraine back to its feet, it may show Belarusians there can be life after Lukashenko. If Moscow tires of the pantomime villain on its borders, it could quickly make life untenable for its client.

In the meantime, Belarus prepares to celebrate another year under "Batka".


Lukashenko greets Putin in Minsk last month

Second world war veteran Nikolay Sapanovich and his social worker at his Zhitkovichi home. The war, in which a third of the population of Belarus died, left a profound fear of invasion Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko/Corbis

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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