‘Last Dictator’ Keeps Firm Grip on Power

The train station in Gomel, the second largest city in Belarus, tells a lot about this country that time forgot. Towering over the shabby, rundown lobby is a glorious white statue of Lenin.

Sitting on the edge of Europe is a country whose leader, Aleksander Lukashenko, is a man who has praised Hitler and Stalin. The country is preparing for an election Sunday that few beyond its borders believe will be anything more than window dressing on the reinstallation of the man known as "Europe's last dictator."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. State Department are among many Western agencies that have issued statements saying they see little chance of the Belarusian elections being fair. They cite the oppression of independent media and the restrictions put on candidates' freedom to meet with voters.

The State Department has indicated it will not recognize the validity of the election, but Lukashenko revels in his demonization in the West.

"What is important is that Belarus citizens themselves recognize the outcome of the elections," Lukashenko said in a speech this week, when he also promised to throw out any remaining Western organizations and punish his opponents after the vote.

Over the summer, news organizations in the West and Russia have reported allegations against Lukashenko that would likely be damning for a candidate seeking re-election in most democracies. Among the allegations was the claim from two KGB agents that the president was behind "death squads" responsible for the murders of at least 30 opposition politicians, journalists and activists.

The state executioner also reported, after fleeing the country, that the pistol used in his work was "borrowed" from him by two KGB agents during the same period of time when an opposition politician and a prominent businessman disappeared.

He became concerned, he said, when he learned about the disappearances, fearing that he might eventually be accused of complicity in whatever happened to the two men. Like the dozens of others who have disappeared in the country, the two have never been found.

Invisible Candidates

But those in the nation of 10 million that lies between Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia, who see nothing more than Belarusian media, know next to nothing of those charges.

And they know little of the two men running against the president. Official media has given the candidates no more than the minimum coverage required by law, while lavishing attention on Lukashenko's every presidential move.

"Who's running?" one young woman in Gomel responded when asked about the election. When she heard the names of the challengers, she shrugged. "Who are they? It doesn't matter. The madman will win."

When polls started to indicate the race might be closer than the runaway that Lukashenko predicted earlier this summer, the president threatened to bar the man considered to be his strongest challenger, Vladimir Goncharik, from the race. His crime was meeting voters on the streets and distributing flyers about his campaign.

Who's the Idiot?

Goncharik was also distributing T-shirts that referred to Lukashenko, a former collective farm director who uses his simple dialect to reinforce his populist image, as "the idiot."

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