One of the drabbest buildings in this gray city is a low-slung concrete block on the windblown outskirts of town that has been Pavel Mazheika's home since September: Dormitory No. 3.

Despite the name, there are bars on the windows and police at the metal gate in the lobby. And Mazheika's roommates are not students: One was convicted of bribery, another is a deadbeat dad and the third tried to steal a car.

Mazheika himself is a journalist, one of three sentenced to internal exile last year for allegedly libeling President Alexander Lukashenko, who critics accuse of bringing back Soviet-era authoritarianism that keeps dissent underfoot and has the economy stumbling.

Since September, Mazheika has been waking at 6:30 a.m. to a deafening alarm, spending 11-hour days lifting logs at a sawmill and walking outdoors to get to a shower. Inmates must be in bed at 10:30 p.m., and the large window in the door to each room means guards can look in at any time.

Mazheika, 24, was initially told he would serve his sentence near his home in the western city of Grodno. But at the last minute he was sent to Zhlobin in the southeast of this former Soviet republic, 265 miles from home.

An amnesty has halved Mazheika's two-year "limited freedom" sentence. He says his guards have told him that he may be offered early release for good behavior, but that he may have to admit guilt first -- something he will not do.

"I do not regret that I want to live in a normal country with freedom of the press and freedom of speech," he said.

Mazheika was convicted for an article that suggested the president uses violence against opponents. The article appeared only on the Internet because the newspaper's print run was confiscated.

Lukashenko, 48, was elected on an anti-corruption platform in 1994. He soon cracked down on dissent and has resisted economic reforms, keeping the economy under firm state control. In 1996, he dissolved parliament and created a loyal legislature after a referendum that boosted his powers and extended his term by two years.

Diplomats say authorities have stepped up efforts to stifle independent media that criticized Lukashenko during the September 2001 campaign, when he won a new five-year term in a vote that the United States and European Union said was neither free nor fair.

Rights advocates say nine newspapers were shut down or forced out of business last year. The nation of 10 million is the only former Soviet republic where the security service is still called the KGB, and many citizens won't give their names if they criticize Lukashenko, for fear of being found out and punished.

"His chief ally is fear," said opposition politician Anatoly Lebedko, whose office wall bears portraits of six politicians and other figures who disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances in recent years, and the opposition accuses Lukashenko of involvement in the disappearances.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Kozak compares Belarus unfavorably to surrounding former Soviet bloc countries that have pursued democracy and market economies.

Belarus "is kind of the black hole in the doughnut, where everybody else moved forward and they moved backward," Kozak said. "It's a highly unsustainable situation to be that far out of step with all your neighbors."

Still, Lukashenko retains support, particularly among the elderly, by playing on a deep desire for law and order and nostalgia for the Soviet era.

"He's a good man. He is on the right path," said Valentin Golodayev, 71, a pensioner who lives in a spare but warm cottage beside the road to Minsk in Red Army Kolkhoz, a collective farm outside Zhlobin. "He brought order. Right after he became president, they built a new fence here and fixed up the road."

Where the same road enters Zhlobin, Valentina Naumenko was slapping white paint on a fence on a bitter winter day, one of two dozen workers called away from their jobs to brighten up the route that Lukashenko planned to use in visiting the city.

A 40-year-old who is struggling to support three teenage children and has not left the Zhlobin region for over a decade, Naumenko said she backs Lukashenko because her parents' pensions and her monthly salary -- worth just under $50 -- are paid on time. "We can't complain," she said.

Increasingly, however, Belarusians are complaining: about delayed wages, the falling buying power of their pay and the lack of economic reforms that many people, especially the young, believe are necessary.

"It is impossible to live well without some sort of big change," said Nikolai Simakov, 25, who works on customs issues at the Belarus Metallurgical Factory, a hulking plant on the edge of Zhlobin that employs more than 15,000 of the city's 75,000 residents.

Marat Afanasyev, an opposition political party member who works in construction planning at the factory, pointed to its three towering smokestacks as symbols of the failure of Lukashenko's economic policies. It was early on a weekday afternoon, but all three were idle.

Lebedko, the opposition politician, said the deteriorating economy is the main reason for disenchantment with Lukashenko. "In eight years he has not presented attractive programs; he has proved unable to struggle with economic problems."

A key source of cash for Belarus is arms sales. In 2002, it was 11th among world weapons merchants, with sales of $200 million, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Military cooperation with Iraq has angered Washington, and the United States and all the European Union nations except Portugal put a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top officials over human rights concerns.

During the 1990s Lukashenko won popularity among his own citizens -- and financial support from Russia -- by championing reunification of the two nations, an idea that resonated with millions of people in both countries who regret the Soviet Union's collapse.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin embarrassed Lukashenko last summer by offering a plan for Russia to absorb Belarus. Lukashenko angrily rejected it and has stressed sovereignty ever since.

The Kremlin may continue to support Belarus, analysts say, but only in exchange for better business conditions for Russian companies. That would mean privatizing state-run enterprises, a step that would undermine Lukashenko's control over the economy and could lead to layoffs and angry voters.

There is widespread speculation Lukashenko is considering holding a referendum to change the constitution so he could run for a third term in 2006.

Sitting on his spare, sagging metal-frame bed in the Zhlobin dormitory, Mazheika is against the idea. "The sooner the situation can be changed, the better," he said.

But at Zhlobin's train station, which squats behind a statue of Lenin on a central square, stuffed-animal vendor Galina Vasilchenko said she would vote for Lukashenko again.

Vasilchenko liked the president during his first term but was disappointed by tax increases and the economic struggles during his second term. "We hope his third term will be better," she said.

"[Lukashenko] brought order. Right after he became president, they built a new fence here and fixed up the road," said Valentin Golodayev, 71, at left.