A small nation watches Europe recede while the bad, old Russia sneaks b ack The faltering creation that stands between us and the bad, old Russia

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The Independent Online
I HAVE a friend who thinks he is King of Belarus. To put the point more obscurely, he thinks he is the rightful Grand Duke of Lithuania of which Belarus (once known as Byelorussia) is the biggest fragment.

Why he thinks this is a question leading into a Pripet Marsh of strange genealogies and assertions. Other people who know him are sceptical. They say that he is no more than a Polish gentleman of minor noble birth (like millions of people in Poland, where whole villages are inhabited by nobles who are pushed to afford a shave or new shoes for their children). Maybe his family did once have a property in what is now Belarus, but so what?

None of this deters my friend. He is possessed by burning certainty. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Belarus found itself stumbling around as an independent sovereign state, he moved to Minsk, the capital, and began to organise a party to support his claim. As Belarus is a republic, he decided to run as a presidential candidate. I suppose that he would have got nowhere much - Belarusians have resentful memories of Poles as landlords and conquerors - but he never got the chance to find out. He was seized and deported as the presidential campaign got going.

The point of this story is that my Polish friend was right to see that Belarus is a land of dreams, where wild fantasies stand a chance of drawing a winning ticket. Some would say that the very nation it-self is a wild dream, unconvincing even to its own peoples. Its past, as they say in Russia, is difficult to predict. The late and great Professor Gwyn Alf Williams used to ask about his own nation: "When was Wales?", and the question of when or even where Belarus was provokes conflicting answers.

But this dream is apparently about to end. The President of Belarus, elected in July 1994, is Alexander Lukashenko, a Communist apparatchik who used to run a Soviet collective farm, and he intends to wind up the brief period of Belarusian independence. A merger with Russia, he announced last weekend after a meeting with President Yeltsin, is to take place on 2 April. The two countries will form a new creature called the Union of Sovereign States, led by a joint supreme council and open to the other countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union.

At least, that is his story. President Yeltsin's office is much more cautious; this will not be a new state but merely a two-state community. In Russia, there is an ominous political background: the vote in the Russian Duma on 15 March to restore the Soviet Union, and the support for that policy by Gennadi Zhuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party and at present the front-runner for the presidential elections in June.

In Minsk, where most of Belarus's intellectual nationalists live, there was a huge protest demonstration last week against the merger. Up to 30,000 people marched behind the old red-white Belarus flag (now abolished by Lukashenko), and fought a bloody battle in the snow against the riot police. But most Belarusians seem bemused about independence. So few people voted in the parliamentary elections in May that nearly half of the results were declared invalid. President Lukashenko said that elections were rubbish anyway and tore up his voting slip in front of the TV cameras.

It is easy to sneer at the pathetic weakness of political life in Belarus. It is equally easy to dismiss Belarusian independence as the fantasy of a romantic minority, in a country whose people's sense of ethnic identity is so private that they will describe themselves to strangers simply as tutejszy "from-here people". Easy, but wrong. There are reasons why what is happening to Belarus is tragic and dangerous for the whole of Europe.

The first sinister message is about post-Communism. That is a term better used about the parties that now govern Poland and Hungary. They have their problems from the past, including the need to find jobs for talentless old hacks from the pre-1989 era. But they are genuine in their commitment to pluralist democracy and to a mixed economy based on the market. They have thrown away the Soviet model, and their policies are not unlike those of social democrats within the European Union. But Lukashenko's version of Communism is hardly "post" at all. If this is what Russia will be like if Mr Zhuganov wins power in June, the world should take fright.

Lukashenko's Communism has little to do with Lenin or Stalin. What we are looking at in Belarus is the restoration of Leonid Brezhnev. This is the corrupt, oppressive, stagnant type of regime - a one-party dictatorship without energy or ideas apart from more cognac and shooting-lodges for the elite - which evolved after the death of Stalin. Everything belongs to the state, but this sort of society is Communist only in name.

In Belarus, the President has banned independent trade unions (his decree was overturned by the constitutional court, but the President is ignoring that). When the workers of the Minsk Metro exercised their right to strike last August, he declared their stoppage illegal and masked security men opened fire on a group of strikers; 23 were arrested. Train drivers from Russia and Ukraine were brought in to break the strike. The union was raided and dissolved and its leaders charged with "disruption".

Mass sackings followed. President Lukashenko said that the victims would never get another job unless they worked for two months on a collective farm and were given a good reference. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has protested that Belarus has violated the conditions for an interim agreement with the European Union and for support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

So much for the workers. In the same spirit, Lukashenko has brought broadcasting under his own control and bullied the press until independent newspapers have to be printed in Lithuania and smuggled across the border. He has ordered all enterprises to surrender hard currency to the government, seized one of the main private banks and announced that he will nationalise the others soon. Outraged, the International Monetary Fund has suspended loans to Belarus.

But the Belarus crisis is about more than the resurrection of Brezhnev from the dead. The independence of Belarus matters for European security. It is one of the chain of new republics which stretches from the Baltic to the Black Sea, insulating Russia from Poland and the West. The existence of this row of countries - the Baltic republics, Belarus and Ukraine - gives Europe a sort of screen, behind which the nations of East-Central Europe, none of which are Russia's direct neighbours, can be brought into the European Union and Nato without too much alarm in Moscow.

In the end, if the uneasy peace holds, these in-between states will also be brought into the "security community" of the West. But the wait is increasingly dangerous for them, as Russia's imperial instincts reassert themselves.

Their best hope is to hang together, to insure themselves against Russia as a temporary bloc of small non-aligned nations. But if Belarus collapses and falls back into union with Russia, that hope of solidarity collapses too. That is why the invention of the Belarusian nation - a bit of a forgery, as nation-building always is - needs our support.