Belarus, Alone Against History's Tide
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 11, 1998; Page A1
MINSK, Belarus First, he ordered ambassadors out of their homes, cut off the power and water, and locked them out. Now he wants the furniture removed. Alexander Lukashenko, president of this forlorn former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe, is fighting a quixotic battle to empty the diplomatic quarter of his capital.
But why? To grab prime real estate next to his own residence, some say. To retaliate for Western carping against his one-man rule, others say. To prepare the way for reintegration of Belarus into a revived Soviet-style union with neighboring Russia, still others guess.
But guesses they remain. The impulsive Lukashenko, 43, has emerged as the most confounding leader in the 15 former Soviet republics that have become independent states, with more than their fair share of dictators and despots.
His political style includes the revival of mass Stalinist-style military parades, the creation of a personality cult around himself and repression that make Belarusan liberals fearful of a return to a totalitarian past. His economic policies, which reject Western-style privatization schemes and pour subsidies into rundown farms and decrepit industries, go against the grain of every other former Soviet republic.
It all makes Belarus the man-bites-dog story of the former Soviet Union: a leader and supporters who resist the sweeping change occurring in almost all of the other former republics. Instead, Lukashenko's nostalgia for the old days just may be bringing them back to this nation of 10 million.
This state of affairs might not make a difference to the outside world, given Belarus's relatively insignificant role on the global stage. The country is largely a potato republic, dependent on Russia for trade and for fuel it rarely pays for. Yet Lukashenko seems to have appeal not only in his country, where he is popular, but in Russia. Some Russians fear Belarus is a foretaste of what could happen in their country if the economy continues to decline and President Boris Yeltsin passes from the scene.
"We are small, but we are not so unlike Russia," said Stanislav Shushkevich, the former speaker of parliament who in 1991 pulled the country out of the Soviet Union. "We have an impoverished countryside and insecure population. Lukashenko says he won't let the problems of Russia happen to Belarus, and that is popular here. It may also soon be popular in Russia."
History has been a punishment for Belarus. Its rolling countryside, squeezed between Poland and Russia, is a doormat for invaders. During World War II, Belarus then known as the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was overrun twice, first by the Germans and then by the counterattacking Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and fighters died, and its large Jewish population was largely wiped out. Minsk was flattened, and only a small, rebuilt old town near a river offers a reminder of the modest pre-war city.
Belarusans and foreigners say past horrors make Belarusans yearn for little more than stability and a strong leader to protect them. One explanation of the diplomatic row is that Lukashenko felt a need to stand up to foreign critics; unlike other leaders of former Soviet states, he gets no invitations from the West for official visits.
In April, the government informed ambassadors that their abode in the Drozdy residential complex, a wooded enclave outside the city, was only temporary and they would have to leave. The diplomats objected, and in June, things escalated quickly. Claiming the compound was threatened by an inundation of sewage from rotting pipes that needed fixing, the government ordered gates to the compound locked, and power and water cut.
Ambassadors from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Japan were called home. The Europeans left one morning in a limousine caravan after holding an open-air champagne toast. The Russian ambassador stayed for a while, but then went home on leave an apparent effort in Moscow to avoid either breaking with Minsk or taking its side. The embassies themselves remain functioning under the management of their respective charges d'affaires.
The Western ambassadors say they will return only when they can move into the original residences, which under international law are supposed to be off-limits to evictions. Belarusan officials say the envoys should take up residence in downtown apartments. All can then be negotiated. As a goodwill gesture, officials said this week that the furniture, which initially was ordered out, could stay.
In Minsk, Belarusans quickly recalled a parallel to a distant event: In 1952, Joseph Stalin tried to evict U.S. and British diplomats from quarters across from the Kremlin. The Stalinist parallel was highlighted July 3 when Lukashenko oversaw a National Day parade that featured troops, tanks, rocket launchers, tractors and trams. Muscular athletes and clean-shaven youths bore portraits of Lukashenko as they passed the reviewing stand.
He compared pressure from the West over the so-called Sewer War to the Nazi invasion. "Talking to us with force, provocations, blackmail and threats will not be allowed," Lukashenko said.
Belarusans took the incident in stride. At the cavernous central market, shoppers appeared perplexed by the uproar. "The president will take good care of the ambassadors," said one woman lining up for frozen chicken. "He takes care of us, so why not them?"
The belief that Lukashenko cares is the basis of his popularity even staunch opponents of the regime concede he holds the political loyalty of about 60 percent of the population. He won the 1994 presidential elections overwhelmingly, on an anti-corruption platform. He calls himself Batka father.
His speeches are theatrical: He laughs, he cries, he holds his hands to his heart, he blames problems on evil outside forces. Born to a single mother in a rural village, his humble past endears him even to city Belarusans, most of whom are only a generation away from the village themselves. He has been known to Rollerblade in a red spandex outfit, or play hockey with the national team and of course, he scores.
"He has created the myth of a powerful and caring president," said Tatyana Protka, who heads the Belarusan Helsinki Committee of human rights watchers. "It's useful to remember that many people loved Stalin."
Lukashenko has vowed to avoid the economic dislocations in Russia brought on by rapid privatization and and other efforts to create a market economy. But his economic policies are contradictory, a mix of the free market and the old Soviet system. The government has opposed the privatization of major state-owned industries but has allowed private investors, including Ford Motor Co. and McDonald's Corp., to set up operations.
Officials say the economy is growing at the robust rate of 10 percent. But independent economists dispute the figure, saying it does not take inflation nor the devaluation of the currency into account. Lukashenko, they say, makes money the old-fashioned, Communist way by printing it, to cover salaries on farms and in factories, even the least productive of them.
When things go wrong, he commands them to be right. When the value of the currency collapsed in March by 40 percent on foreign exchange markets, making imports far more expensive, Lukashenko ordered prices to rise no more than 2 percent a month. His government recently forbade Belarusan banks from buying foreign currency, apparently to stanch an outflow of capital.
"Lukashenko is trying to combine two economic systems that don't fit. Something has got to give eventually," said Pavel Daneiko, who heads a privatization institute here.
Political opposition to Lukashenko is divided and cowed. With talk of parliamentary and presidential elections being held next year, no one thinks that Lukashenko can be weakened significantly.
Part of the opposition weakness is a response to intimidation. Repression gives Minsk an atmosphere reminiscent of Soviet times. Recently, two teens were sentenced to 18 months in prison for writing anti-Lukashenko graffiti on a wall. One of the boys is on probation because he is only 16. The 18-year-old is in a jail usually reserved for felons.
In the past, Lukashenko's police have roughed up demonstrators, and even more sinister bullying periodically occurs. In December, Yuri Khasherbatsky, an internationally known, award-winning documentary filmmaker, was severely beaten at his small workshop by two burly strangers. Khasherbatsky recently had produced a documentary depicting the dictatorial style of Lukashenko.
State television turns out rapturous reports of Lukashenko's activities, while the owners of the few opposition newspapers available face frequent inspections from tax authorities and difficulties in dealing with the government-run distribution system.
Russia seems to hold the key to Belarus's political and economic future. In April, they joined in a loose union that has created open borders between the two countries and tight military ties. The relationship is something like one between a forgiving father and delinquent child. Russia, for instance, sends crude oil to Belarus to be refined, expecting the finished product to be sent back. The Belarusans keep it. Russian customs officials complain that Belarus does not turn over duties it collects on its Western borders for goods bound for Russia. Belarusan exports of moonshine into Russia help sink Moscow's efforts to reduce non-taxed liquor.
"Russia subsidizes Belarus, and without this help, Lukashenko could not survive five minutes," said former parliament speaker Shushkevich.
Belarusans suspect that Lukashenko wants to be president of a tighter Russian-Belarus union. He speaks glowingly of Slavic brotherhood and has referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union as tragic.
Unless the ambassadors' flap is resolved, Russia will be Lukashenko's only friendly neighbor on the map of Europe and in the Drozdy compound. Russian foreign ministry officials say the ambassador's house there is Russian property and the Russian envoy intends to return to it after the sewers are repaired.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company