Vladimir Putin's recent call for a new Russian authoritarianism -- and the near-total support the president's proposal enjoys at home -- should rattle not only Western diplomats but democratic opposition leaders throughout the former Soviet Union. For them, Russia's reversal raises a fundamental, even existential, question: Are the people living in the 15 former Soviet republics capable of governing themselves? Do they yearn to be free? Or is it their nature to acquiesce to dictatorship when the apparent price of freedom -- say, the massacre of hundreds of schoolchildren -- becomes too expensive?

This question of post-Soviet political identity is particularly salient in Belarus, Russia's immediate neighbor to the west: On Oct. 17, Belarusans, having rejected freedom in favor of security a decade ago, head to the polls for parliamentary elections. Their dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, has shown little appetite for democratic reform. But the liberal activists running for office -- a hodgepodge of social democrats, free marketeers, reconstructed Marxists and others who call themselves the Five-Plus Coalition -- believe now is their moment.

This is, at least for the present, a dubious proposition. In Belarus, the fourth estate is more or less an organ of Lukashenko's regime, and elections are for show; fears of ballot tampering and last-minute disqualification of democratic candidates are rampant. Before liberal reform can sweep Belarus or Russia, Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia, the people of those nations will have to choose whether they want to be subjects or citizens, whether they want the right (and the responsibility) to build their own future. This may sound odd to Americans, since most of us take it for granted that all peoples want to be the masters of their own destinies. But at a time when the United States is exporting, or attempting to export, democracy to the Middle East, it's legitimate to ask whether, in fact, everyone everywhere wants to be like us. Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the post-Soviet world, should give us pause.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the former head of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus and current leader of the Social Democratic Party, voices skepticism about the democratic movement's chances of making any headway this year, even as he remains committed to the idea of democracy. He points out that Belarusans have been conditioned by centuries of oppression to put up with almost anything; a quarter of the pre-war Belarusan population was murdered by the Soviets and the Nazis in the 1930s and '40s. To many, Lukashenko is but a pale shadow of Stalin and Brezhnev, an utterly unexceptional postscript to socialist totalitarianism. Indeed, Lukashenko retains support among peasants living in pre-Soviet villages, and the pensioners and World War II veterans whose lives were defined by the struggle against fascism, five-year plans and the socialist march toward "freedom."

When I visited him in the capital city of Minsk last May, Shushkevich, who is nearing 70, speculated that the moment for peaceful transition may have been lost. A former nuclear physicist, it was he, along with Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, then president of Ukraine, who formally dissolved the Soviet Union in a Belarusan hunting lodge in late 1991.

Ten million Belarusans who had been rotting away in a "workers' paradise" haunted by the gulag and made nearly uninhabitable by the Chernobyl disaster were set free. A liberal regime took power, with Shushkevich at its head. But the West, Shushkevich told me, missed its best opportunity to help build a stable democracy when it failed to give Belarus low-interest loans. The "shock therapy" of privatization proved too great for Belarusans, he said. Lukashenko, a parliamentary deputy at the time, was able to capitalize on widespread discontent.

After three years of independence, the Belarusans decided they'd had enough of democracy. With the 1994 election of Lukashenko, they made clear what they wanted: Order, predictability and an all-powerful state to safeguard against drug traffickers, arms dealers and foreign investors looking to carve up downtown Minsk. They also made it clear what they did not want: Freedom. The freedom to build a life, to express an opinion, to be more than a cog in the communal organism.

Today, Lukashenko is the unquestioned dictator of his country, having spent the past decade marginalizing opposition leaders, shutting down independent newspapers and squeezing business owners to the point of near-extinction.

Shushkevich doesn't foresee a peaceful evolution to a more democratic society. He believes that a challenge to Lukashenko is more likely to resemble what took place in Romania, where dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was murdered in 1989, than in Czechoslovakia, where a bloodless Velvet Revolution toppled the communist regime that same year. "My parents and grandparents would put it this way," he said of Lukashenko's long-term prospects. "This man will not die a natural death."

This is indeed a critical time, and not only in Belarus. Ukrainians will vote for their next president on Oct. 31, and the recent suspected poisoning of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is just one of many signs that reform will not come easily to the former Soviet Union.

There is a tragic inevitability to all this. "In the course of the 20th century, successive regimes, wars, revolutions, gulags, eliminated the most active, the most independent, the most energetic people," said historian Roman Szporluk, the recently retired director of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. "For people to survive under Stalin, under communism, you had to pretend to be stupid. If you go on this way generation after generation, you really create a certain mode of behavior."

Still, the younger reformers -- the university activists, independent journalists, anarchists and human rights lawyers -- are more optimistic than people like Shushkevich. They despise Lukashenko for his backwardness and his thick peasant accent. They fear the local KGB, the nighttime arrests, the "ideological managers" who regulate their schools and businesses, the inanity and iniquity of a system that has no legitimacy or meaning. But they believe freedom is as inevitable as the classless utopia their great-grandparents were promised.

Valentina Polevikova, a former trade union leader and now a democratic candidate from Minsk in the parliamentary elections, characterized the reform movement as an effort to change the way Belarusans think about the relationship between the state and civil society. "I want to talk to them so that they understand that Lukashenko has been lying to them for 10 years the way the Soviets lied to them for 70 years," she told me.

Polevikova and other reformers said the elections two weeks from now will show whether Belarusans' three-year experiment with freedom in the early 1990s was an aberration or a promise of the possibility of a different kind of political identity. This may be putting too much emphasis on a single campaign. The reformist coalition has spent more than a year recruiting candidates, but it's unlikely they'll win even a handful of the 110 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

In the longer term, though, there are reasons to be hopeful. First, Belarus is not a place like Iraq, with its ancient hatreds, war-torn cities and radical theocrats hellbent on annihilating all things Western. It is a European nation with churches, newspapers and an intelligentsia that has given rise to a protest class of students, trade unionists, veterans of the Afghan war, even ex-KGB agents.

More importantly, it is not defined so much by language, ethnicity or race as by geography. "I think ethnic origins don't mean anything," said poet Nikolai Viniatski, while taking part in a protest against the regime in Minsk last spring. Belarus is populated by Orthodox Russians, Polish Catholics, even a smattering of Jews. Intermarriage is easy and ubiquitous. It was the Soviets who concocted this mix, as part of their plan to "de-ethnicize" the proletarian mass. And now, ironically, it is that cultural reengineering of a half-century ago that is laying the foundation for post-Soviet democracy, activists believe. In Belarus, Viniatski explained, there is no tribalism; the ethnic tension that colors life in the Baltics, the conflagration that is the Caucasus, could never happen here. People are, for the most part, comfortable with difference. You might call them post-ethnic.

You might also call them post-ideological. In Belarus, they know that Marx's scientific materialism is dead. That dream turned out to be a joke for which tens of millions died. This has made Belarusans bitter and ironic. Over vodka, in their kitchens, they call their fearless leader a buffoon who likes to work out with the national hockey team but has been barred from the White House. They wonder when they will be able to join the community of nations.

All this can be to the good, even if the elections later this month are unlikely to spark a revolution. In Belarus's East European neighbors and elsewhere, after all, bitterness and irony have often served as a ripe medium for change.

Author's e-mail:

psavodnik@thehill.com

Peter Savodnik is political editor of the Hill newspaper. He traveled to Belarus on a fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Supreme leader? Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko enjoys support among the rural population, but protest against his dictatorial regime and strong-arm tactics is making itself felt in places like Minsk, the capital.