‘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."

The most recent allegations add a theater of the absurd element to what has otherwise been a somewhat dark campaign. Charter 97, an independent Web site devoted to news of Belarus, reported today that a rally of gay and lesbian groups expected to be held in Gomel on Saturday was actually the work of a KGB agent working on government orders to discredit the opposition.

Lukashenko has already tried that, charging that Goncharik was being funded by Western governments seeking to destabilize the nation.

Stability has been Lukashenko's one gift to Belarus. While pensioners and state employees such as teachers, miners, police and soldiers have gone months at a time without receiving their pay in neighboring Ukraine, salaries in Belarus may be meager, but they are regular.

Fleeing Stability

While Russia and Ukraine have suffered through economic turmoil and social unrest, Lukashenko has kept his landlocked country stable, secure — and to much of the younger generation, stifling. There has been virtually no foreign investment, despite the fact that the country is relatively free of the organized crime that has troubled its neighbors.

State statistics indicate that the number of Belarusians who emigrate each year has tripled since Lukashenko took office. It is believed the actual number of people who fled last year could be several times higher than the roughly 5,000 reported by the Labor Ministry.

Outside of the capital of Minsk, the country seems to be inhabited primarily by children and old people, and there are few signs of a youth culture.

There may be few discos or nightclubs, but one sign of Belarusian youth that is widely visible is the graffiti of Zubr (Bison), a group that continues to stage acts of civil disobedience despite the arrests and harassment of its members.

Finding opponents of the 47-year-old former collective farm director isn't hard, even in Gomel, a city that seems all but unchanged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the opposition is more often than not conveyed in a roll of the eyes, a despairing, disparaging laugh, or a dismissing gesture of the hand.

And the expectation is that however the votes are cast, they will wind up adding up to another term for Lukashenko.