Big Brother on Russia's border

The return of Belarus to hardline, Soviet-style government is putting at risk the West's fragile new relationship with its old enemy, writes Phil Reeves in Moscow

It was spring, and time for Alexander Lukashenko to give a television pep talk to his collective farmers before they set out to sow their crops. They had better watch out, the moustachioed leader warned them.

The workshy loafing around the meadows may find themselves looking heavenwards as a whirr of rotor blades announces the arrival of an indignant, airborne president. His helicopter would "hang over the fields in the air almost every day for surprise trips", he said. Special presidential envoys - more accurately, spies - would be out and about, ready to report wayward farmers to the government's prosecutors. Their punishments, said Mr Lukashenko, himself a former Soviet state farm director, would be the harshest possible: "People are saying, Mr President, give us a dictatorship. Give us Stalin's times."

For those who follow the increasingly dictatorial activities of the president of Belarus, a nation of 10.5 million sandwiched between Russia and Poland, the broadcast was a classic performance, another reminder of a retrograde trend in the ex-Soviet republic that is causing increasing concern in the West, and adding strain to its difficult relationship with Moscow.

On the same day in March, the president took another step in the same direction, by announcing the return of the Soviet practice of the subbotnik, unpaid mandatory weekend labour such as street cleaning.

Today, Mr Lukashenko will be in the spotlight again, although in a different role. Assuming no last-minute hitches, he will be at Boris Yeltsin's side in Moscow to sign documents drawing their Slavic nations together.

Emotions in Moscow have been running high. On the one hand, conservative Russians who hanker after the good old days of Soviet power thrill to the notion that at least one component of their shattered empire may be restored, and admire Mr Lukashenko's zeal for paryadok - order.

On the other, there are many Russians - notably liberals - who balk at the notion of embracing a backward nation with an economy which is even more broken down than their own. They also suspect Mr Lukashenko of wanting, at best, a bigger role in Moscow politics and, at worst, a shot at the Kremlin's top job. So far, the latter seem to have won the day. But few believe that this will be the end of the Belarussian president's ambitions.

Alexander Lukashenko, 42, has exactly the characteristics that set international alarm bells ringing. He is a charismatic and dynamic speaker, a showman, who enjoys widespread popularity. He is also an erratic, profoundly anti- Western autocrat who is bent on centralising power.

Natalya Shevko, a 33-year-old Belarussian businesswoman, has first-hand experience of this. When Mr Lukashenko came to power in July 1994, she was running a successful financial consultancy in Minsk, with several hundred staff. That has since closed, forced out of business by the new anti-market government which, she says, carried out 29 inspections in eight months. She has left Belarus, quietly slipping back only occasionally to see her husband and seven-year-old son.

A leading member of the United Citizens' Party, she now works in Moscow, where she is setting up an office for the Belarussian opposition. "I don't want to live in the Soviet Union," she said, "I want to live in a small, European country. In Belarus we understand perfectly well that we are moving closer to Bolshevism and totalitarianism."

She is surprisingly outspoken, given the risks: "I am not afraid that I will become a victim of something. I am afraid for my brother, my mother, my friends. On the other hand, I hate the regime more than I fear it."

International concern about Mr Lukashenko began soonafter he was elected, but last November it reached a peak when he forced through a referendum which swept away the vestiges of democracy and accorded him autocratic powers. The result - condemned as a sham by the US and others - allowed him to install a new, two-chamber puppet parliament, to extend his term of office by two years, and to increase his sway over the electoral commission and supreme court. Apart from China and Russia, no major power has recognised the poll. Independent observers cited hundreds of flaws.

Since then, relations with most of the outside world - with the exception of Moscow - have been extremely frosty. The United States has accused Belarus of an "abysmal" human rights record and cancelled $40m in aid. In March, it briefly summoned home its ambassador for consultations after Belarus threw out one of its diplomats. This week the rift deepened when the American Soros Foundation, long suspected by Belarus of supporting opposition groups, closed down its office in Minsk after the government seized $3m of its funds, alleging tax violations.

The US has yet to forget how Belarus shot down an American balloon that strayed over their territory during a competition in 1995, killing its two pilots. Nor have Lukashenko-watchers forgotten his remarks last year when he praised Hitler, albeit guardedly, for bringing unity to Europe, a singular view from the leader of a nation that lost a quarter of its population in the Second World War.

At present, Mr Lukashenko's grasp on power seems to be secure. He is supported by a large, loyal and well armed presidential guard, and has retained a powerful, Soviet-style KGB. Though restricted demonstrations have taken place regularly in Minsk, participants have been fined, beaten by riot police, and jailed briefly. Opposition leaders complain of harassment, and heavy-handed surveillance.

Mr Lukashenko maintains a throttle on the state-controlled media. The only independent radio station was shut down months ago. Opposition newspapers, usually printed in the Baltics, have been subjected to repeated tax inspections, and freezes on their bank accounts.

Angered by their critical coverage of events in Minsk, the president has also tried to rein in the Russian media, causing rare complaints from Moscow, which is generally uncritical of its small Western cousin. To outsiders, it seems as though Mr Lukashenko is motivated by the same impulse that prompted the sorry crew of hardliners who tried to mount a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 - a determination to restore a Soviet-style command economy, combined with a paternalistic government which favours the elite and keeps the rest of society under its thumb. His critics say that where the plotters failed, he is succeeding.

Soviet-era textbooks have been returned to the classrooms of Belarus. Emphasis has been placed on the Russian, rather than Belarussian, language. The younger generation was, he complained, losing its "moral guidelines".

To the horror of some students, the government has also announced plans to reintroduce the old Soviet practice under which new graduates are required to work in government jobs for several years. Belarussian students fear they may be dispatched to work as teachers and doctors in the zone affected by the Chernobyl disaster, where - for obvious reasons - there are more jobs than applicants.

"These people have had a free education from the state, so you can argue that they have an obligation to repay that by working for the government," said one Western observer. "But working in the zone is a different issue. There is potential for abuse. What if the government wanted to use it as a punitive measure?"

The first wave of students who could be affected by the order will not leave college until July, and would take up their new posts in the autumn.

While Mr Lukashenko remains in office, similar violations of the civil rights of his remarkably passive population seem certain to continue. The West will occasionally protest, but nothing will be done. Yet at least some of the blame lies at their feet.

Today's events in Moscow will be the next step in a complicated and confusing waltz between Belarus and Russia in which both sides are trying to take the lead. Mr Lukashenko is anxious to avoid losing sovereignty, and being turned into a regional Russian governor; at present, he says his nation will retain its sovereignty and independence. At the same time, he will cherish the thought of one day striding the political stage of a reunited nation, after the remarriage of Russia and Belarus.

But when photographs are beamed around the world today of Mr Lukashenko standing next to Mr Yeltsin, perhaps there will be a twinge of conscience among those who so forcibly argued for the expansion of Nato. They may ask themselves whether the Kremlin would be so chummy with the Belarussian leader, were it not for the alliance's strategy of headlong growth.

Russia has plenty of motives for wanting closer ties with Minsk. Among them is Mr Yeltsin's need for a publicity stunt to appease public opinion and give him the appearance of strength - however bogus - after reluctantly reaching an agreement over Nato expansion earlier this month. Bonding with a Slavic brother fits the bill nicely.

But if the Nato issue had not been there, the picture might have been different: Mr Yeltsin - and his new young reform-minded advisers, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais - might just have had another policy. They might have been pressuring their smaller, backward neighbour to get its economy in order, thus forcing Mr Lukashenko to mend at least some of his ways.

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