The last dictator in Europe

Belarus goes to the polls tomorrow, but the President's opponents have a nasty habit of disappearing. Askold Krushelnycky reports from Kiev
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The Independent Online

He speaks as though the Cold War never ended and makes no effort to conceal his aggressive desire to forge a new Soviet Union. He has in the past praised Hitler's talent for ruling, ridden roughshod over human rights in his country and is suspected of ordering the murders of political opponents who have disappeared without trace. Tomorrow, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, aims to win a referendum that would entitle him to tear up the constitution and ensure his continued reign as Europe's last Stalinist dictator.



Mr Lukashenko, his opponents have said, is not merely intent on clearing a constitutional path to run for a limitless number of terms in office, what he wants is a lifetime presidency. The 50-year-old has attempted to deny the allegation, but after a decade of ruling with what he has admitted is "an element of authoritarianism" Mr Lukashenko shows no sign of going quietly.

Belarus, a country of 10 million, is now perched at the frontier of the European Union, bordering Lithuania and Poland. But it has remained hermetically sealed against the democratic and economic forces that have changed the face of many of the former Soviet republics. First-time visitors are struck by how the country seems frozen in a Soviet twilight zone where people still speak in whispers and criticism of the authorities is risky and sometimes life-threatening.

Even the capital, Minsk, reinforces the impression of a place trapped in a time warp. Whereas the capitals of most other former Soviet republics have undergone dramatic transformations that have brought life and colour to formerly drab environments, Minsk remains grey and morose. Instead of the billboards that splurge colour in Moscow, Vilnius and Kiev, the posters that adorn the boulevards of Minsk show happy families and uniformed soldiers who owe their current, and promised future, good fortune to the balding, moustachioed Mr Lukashenko, whose smiling portraits also keep a constant watch over the people.

Belarusian voters go to the polls tomorrow for parliamentary elections but it is the referendum being held in parallel with those elections that looks set to determine the former Soviet republic's future. The present constitution says that a president can only serve two terms in office. Mr Lukashenko's time runs out in 2006.

The referendum asks whether the constitution should be amended to allow a person to stand for an unlimited number of terms. The opposition has said that the parliamentary and referendum votes will be fixed to reflect Mr Lukashenko's will and claim his ambition is to be president for life. Mr Lukashenko has been president for eight years in which time he has reintroduced some of the most sinister aspects of Soviet-era rule. He was elected in 1994 in a backlash against the corruption and wild capitalism that enriched a few and reduced much of the population to penury. He appealed to the have-nots who preferred miniscule but regular wages to the caprices of an unfettered market economy.

Since then he has worked ruthlessly to entrench his rule. Secret police pervade all aspects of life, political opponents have been persecuted or jailed, and freedom of information has been severely curtailed with opposition newspapers closed down. Some opponents have disappeared, believed murdered on his orders in the past four years. They include Yuri Zakharenko and Victor Gonchar, opposition leaders, businessman Anatoly Krasovski and journalist Dmitri Zavadski.

An investigation by Belarusian law enforcers, some of them later fired, and opposition members, pointed the finger of suspicion at Colonel Dmitry Pavlichenko, a militia commander and crony of Mr Lukashenko. He is known to have asked to be trained in a the use of a silenced pistol used for judicial executions - something that was not within his official remit. The log showing the occasions when he subsequently signed out the pistol coincides with the dates of the four men's disappearances.

Earlier this month Mr Lukashenko told Belarusian authorities that not only should they secure a "yes" vote in the referendum but that his supporters should take all 110 seats in parliament. "We should show who is the master of the house," he said. "We should leave no stone unturned in crushing the domestic and external opposition. One should be able to stay in power and defend it. This is Grandpa Lenin's saying, not mine. We have enough power and techniques to win these elections and referendum overwhelmingly."

Few doubt that he will be successful. Government polls showed that the President will gain the 50 per cent share of votes needed to change the constitution. The democratic and nationalist opposition parties have not been allowed to put their case to the electorate. Many candidates were not allowed to run because of spurious reasons and some opposition candidates who criticised the government in their campaign broadcasts were subsequently removed from the ballot on charges of defaming state officials. Opposition rallies have been broken up by police and candidates arrested. Mr Lukashenko eliminated the opposition from mainstream politics in 1996 by quashing the parliament and replacing its members with his cronies.

Alexander Lukashuk, a Belarusian journalist and political observer, said: "The parliamentary election itself has been reduced to the role of a sideshow as everyone knows that the real power in the land is Lukashenko." Hence the result of the referendum is seen as far more important than the contests for 110 seats in a puppet parliament that is totally submissive to the chief puppeteer, the President. He added: "All the candidates are aligning on whether they are for or against the referendum. Only those who are for are expected to win." He said Mr Lukashenko may allow a few opposition figures to enter parliament "just for the sake of show". But his absolute control of the media has also allowed Mr Lukashenko to present only his, distorted and often bizarre, version of reality.

The opposition has suffered from poor grassroots support because, in an almost Orwellian manner, the President's media control and incessant propaganda has allowed him to convince Belarusians that he is their only saviour. The Belarusian economy has remained largely a Communist-style central command economy with most people employed by the state. Much of the population is impoverished but, as in Soviet times, most people have little opportunity to compare their lot with that of people in other countries.

While the opposition wants Belarus to be genuinely independent and strives to preserve Belarusian culture and language, Mr Lukashenko mocks the native tongue, urges the use of Russian, and wants to rebuild the Soviet Union. The idea of a continuing western threat to Belarus and Russia is an important element of the world view he imposes on his people and that often leads to outbursts of Cold War rhetoric. This week he said he believed that Belarus and Russia have missed a chance effectively to resist Nato's eastward expansion. But he said that, nevertheless, Belarus would never allow Nato tanks, apparently ready to roll across Belarus towards Russia, to go unhindered.

"For its part Belarus would like Russia to never forget it is Russia's advanced outpost," he said. He has already agreed a scheme with Moscow for the union of Russia and Belarus and for the Russian rouble to replace Belarusian currency next year.

Mr Lukashenko's original desire, when he first mooted the union idea in 1996, was to himself become the leader of the new state. That ambition does not coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans. Some of the Belarusian's pronouncements have made Mr Putin wince so that Moscow has back-pedalled on the merger timetable.

Opposition leaders claimed this week to have seen documents declaring the vote from some polling stations already filled out and carrying official signatures and stamps. They said that their people have a negligible number of observers monitoring the vote.

Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party, said. "These can hardly be called election commissions, they are 'falsification' commissions." He said the election commissions have been ordered to ensure an 80 per cent turnout and a 75 per cent vote in favour of the referendum proposal.

Without anyone to challenge him, Mr Lukashenko has become increasingly megalomaniac in his behaviour and his sinister actions are often complemented by eccentric pronouncements. He has decided that 40 per cent of the next parliament will be made up of women because they "always emit kindness"; ordered that television studios airing news should not have too much blue in their backdrops; and has concluded Belarus has assumed the role of Eastern Europe's spiritual leader.

He uses a network of secret police, unchanged from KGB times, to keep tabs on workplace gossip and promote the fearful knowledge that nobody can keep important matters, especially dissent to Mr Lukashenko's rule, a secret. Recently he has ordered the rectors of universities to sack lecturers who do not toe the government line and is considering reinstating the Soviet-style ideological supervisors in workplaces and the army. He said: "Before the end of the year, the state of ideological work in colleges, state and private, should be changed drastically, or else we are going to lose our youth."

The problem for Europe is what to do about Belarus, now a neighbour of the EU. Independent Western observers, who denounced the last elections as subject to mass fraud, will again monitor this weekend's votes. But the opposition claimed the predictable result will be that the monitors will issue a damning report criticising the Minsk government when it is far too late to do anything. The EU has also denied entry to four senior Belarusian officials in protest at the disappearance of three opposition politicians and journalist. They want an investigation.

Meanwhile the man who purportedly carried out the murders, Colonel Pavlichenko, has recently, at Mr Lukashenko's behest, been awarded with a medal for merit by the Russian Orthodox Church.

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

ENVER HOXHA, Albania

Communist leader of Albania from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1985, Hoxha succeeded in completely isolating his country from the outside world and persisted with unreconstructed Stalinism even after Nikita Khruschev's repudiation of the Soviet leader's excesses in 1956. Notoriously paranoid, Hoxha's regime denied its citizens freedom of movement, expression and, especially, religion. Albania abandoned one-party rule in 1990.

TODOR ZHIVKOV, Bulgaria

Zhivkov was leader of Communist Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989. His prolonged reign was largely based on unequivocal servility to Moscow, to the extent that he once proposed that Bulgaria merge with the Soviet Union. Determined to crush all dissent, he imprisoned thousands of Bulgarians in the camps of Lovech and Skravena, especially in the early years of the Cold War. Zhivkov resigned on 10 November 1989, swept away by the wave of revolution across the Eastern bloc.

NIKOLAE CEAUSESCU, Romania

President from 1974 to 1989, Ceausescu kept his country on the Stalinist path trod by his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. His hold on power disintegrated after he ordered the army and his notorious secret police to fire on anti-communist demonstrators on 17 December 1989. The rebellion spread to Bucharest and by 22 December, the army was fraternising with the protesters. Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad.

ERICH HONECKER, East Germany

Leader from 1971 until the state's demise in 1989, Honecker disappointed the West by resisting outside calls for change in East Germany. In the autumn of 1989, he was ousted by his Politburo colleague Egon Krenz. In 1990 an ailing Honecker was charged with high treason, abuses of power and corruption. He spent the final years of his life on the run from German prosecutors to avoid accounting for his part in the killings along the East-West border during the Cold War.



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