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Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 11:37 UK

Belarus poll: 'A wind of change'?

Belarus holds parliamentary elections on Sunday, amid signs that the former Soviet republic run by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko may be opening up to the world.

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse looks at how ordinary people live in what has been called Europe's "last outpost of tyranny."

Valentina
The only change Valentina can think of is gas and electricity in her house

A typical Belarusian autumn country scene: in the light rain, Valentina Egorovna, who is 85 years old, was gathering what remained of the potato harvest from her small plot of land behind her wooden home.

Valentina lives in Pagarelka, a small village about 100km (60 miles) from the capital, Minsk. She was being helped by her daughter, who is in her 60s, her son-in-law - in his 40s, and his two daughters, six and four respectively.

"How's life? Life's all right", Valentina said. She can even save a little of her state pension - about $250 (135) per month - although she still has to work the land despite her age.

Most of the people in the village work in some form or another on the nearby state-run farm.

Asked how her life had changed over the past 25 years, Valentina looked bemused. "How might life have changed for us working people, for us pensioners?"

Ask a babushka this question in neighbouring Russia or Ukraine, and you are virtually guaranteed a long lecture about how good life was in Soviet times. But not here.

'Stuck in time-warp'

The only change Valentina could think of was that she now has gas and electricity in her home. Back then, she said, when she worked as a teacher in the local school, she would have to mark her students' homework by lamplight.

Village scene in Pagarelka
Many villagers still use a horse and cart to transport their harvest

Valentina has lived in her wooden house for 58 years. She and her late husband built it with their own hands in 1950 - three years before Stalin's death. And this, she said, was how people here continued to live - by the work of their own hands.

Outside Valentina's house, a horse and cart trotted down the road, transporting yet more potatoes.

On the surface, Belarus appears like a country stuck in a time-warp.

The capital, Minsk, almost completely destroyed during World War II, is a sea of grey Soviet tower blocks. It is a place where people mind what they say to foreigners, living under the watchful eyes and ears of the KGB.

'Society is changing'

At the city's main hospital the grim, sparse corridors smell of boiled cabbage.

But there I met Oleg, a young plastic surgeon. He said that things in his country are slowly changing.

Plastic surgeon Oleg
Oleg says plastic surgery is no longer the preserve of the rich

"Plastic surgery in Belarus is now one of the fastest growing areas of medical care," he said.

A nose-job, he said, would cost around $600-700 (324-378) - many times cheaper than in the West.

But this is a country where the minimum wage for a state-farm worker is around $100 (54) per month.

But according to Oleg, plastic surgery in Belarus is now no longer the preserve of the rich.

"Our patients are average people, with average needs in life. Our society is changing, and for the better. Now we can buy new brands of car, we can travel to foreign countries. We can talk now."

In the past, Oleg told me, it would have been unthinkable for him to be speaking English to a foreign journalist at his place of work.

Musicians' hopes

Minsk is becoming a more lively place to live. There are growing numbers of bars and restaurants, where locals can go out after work, have a few drinks and listen to some music.

Vadim and a portrait of Lenin
Vadim dreams of the world's borders falling down

In a new club, called Deja Vue, I met two local musicians, Andrei and Vadim.

The venue itself was stuffed full of old Soviet memorabilia: busts of Marx and Lenin, and propaganda posters warning of the dangers of loose talk in front of foreign spies.

The decor may be tongue-in-cheek, but even here, discussing politics is a delicate business.

"I think there have been some positive movements," Andrei told me. "Politics is kind of difficult in this town. But people always hope for the best, that things will open up a little more."

I asked Vadim whether it was awkward for him to sit openly with a foreign journalist and a microphone, talking about politics. He ducked the question.

"I'm free inside," he said. "There will be a moment when the borders will fall and the world will be as one."


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Belarus elections
26 Sep 08 |  Europe
US lifts some Belarus sanctions
05 Sep 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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