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Page last updated at 13:52 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 14:52 UK

Farming roots of Belarussian leader

As Belarus - described by the US as the last dictatorship in Europe - prepares to hold parliamentary elections, the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse traces the roots of its President, Alexander Lukashenko, to a farm in the village of Gorodets.

The collective farm is a two-hour drive from the Belarussian capital, Minsk.

Cows at Gorodets collective farm
Gorodets collective farm is like a microcosm of the country as a whole

There are hundreds of cows, feeding, waiting to be milked.

It was here, in the dying years of the Soviet Union, amid the mud, the tractors and the smell of manure, that Alexander Lukashenko cut his political teeth before he was first elected president in 1994.

"He was a strict boss," says Tamara Krotikova, who worked on the farm in the days when the president was the manager here in the late 1980s. "A strict boss, but a good man," she adds.

As for her life, Ms Krotikova said it was getting better all the time.

All she needs, she says, is a little more money - her pension is just about $100 (54) per month. So, who would she be voting for in these elections?

"There's only one person who can raise our pension and that's Lukashenko - only if he gives the order," she says.

"As for the rest of them, they're not going to give us anything, whatever their name is. The president makes the laws and we obey them."

'Equal to God'

Another person who knew President Lukashenko during his agricultural career is Anatoly Gulyaev.

Alexander Lukashenko at a military parade (file)
[President Alexander Lukashenko's] experience at the farm is what keeps him in power
Anatoly Gulyaev

At the time Mr Gulyaev investigated claims that Mr Lukashenko physically assaulted a tractor driver who was drunk at work. The allegations were never proven in court.

"His experience at the farm is what keeps him in power today," Mr Gulyaev says.

"Under that system, the director of the collective farm was equal to God, the tsar and the commander-in-chief. His word is the law, and no-one can argue with him."

But in Minsk, it seems that the administration is doing its best to present a different face to the world.

Last month, a number of political prisoners were released, and around 70 opposition candidates have been able to register for Sunday's election for the lower chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives.

There are even some opposition posters pasted around the streets of the capital.

But suggestions that the regime has foresworn its authoritarian ways may be premature.

Illegal protest

Vadim is a 19-year-old pro-democracy activist.

A Belarusian teenager writes "Boycott" on election posters in Minsk
The government insists Sunday's election will be free and fair

One night last week he and a friend were sticking posters up around the streets of the capital, calling for a boycott of the election, and a demonstration on polling day itself. They were spotted by the police.

"A policeman grabbed me, hit me on the knees and in the stomach, and shoved me into the car," he says.

But he said got off lightly compared to his friend.

"They had really beaten him - they kicked him in the legs, punched and kicked him in the kidneys. Then they forced him to the ground with their knees, and put handcuffs on him," he says.

The two were detained overnight - and fined $500 (272) each for calling for an illegal protest.

'Scared of reform'

The most high-profile of the political prisoners to be released in August was the former presidential candidate, Alexander Kozulin.

Alexander Kozulin
We'd like to believe that Lukashenko was ready to reform... and of course we would support him if he were
Alexander Kozulin

He spent nearly 30 months in jail after leading a protest against Mr Lukashenko in 2006.

"We'd like to believe that Lukashenko was ready to reform", he tells me. "And of course we would support him if he were."

"But I know Lukashenko well and he's scared of reform, because he's scared of losing power."

The government, however, says these elections will be free and fair, and is urging the European Union to reward their efforts by easing sanctions and travel-bans on members of the administration.

One of the people on the list of those banned from travelling to the EU is Lydia Ermoshina, the head of the Central Election Committee.

On Friday, Ms Ermoshina seemed to be striking a conciliatory tone.

"We're abiding by all common principles and standards, and if there are areas where we fall short, we can talk about those. We learn fast," she said.

'Daddy'

President Lukashenko is known to Belarussians as "Batka", or "Daddy" - sometimes affectionately, sometimes ironically.

He dominates the airwaves and the news bulletins, outlining daily the achievements of the Belarusian people.

People don't want much - the difference between the richest and the poorest in our country is very small
Mikhail Zaletsky

This year, he says there has been a record harvest.

The impression is of a nation that is happy and well cared for. And that, according to Mikhail Zaletsky, a local economist, is the other secret of Mr Lukashenko's popularity.

"People don't want much", he says. "The difference between the richest and the poorest in our country is very small."

In the 1990s, while other former Soviet states limped from rampant privatisation to financial crisis, the Belarussian economy remained stable under almost total state control. People got paid on time and there was sausage in the shops.

Mr Zaletsky compares Belarus to a large Young Pioneer Camp - a summer camp for Soviet youth, where everything was provided for.

"We are a model of the Soviet Union, and we live as in the Soviet Union," he says.

Obedience to authority

Back on the collective farm, Oleg Lesnik is now the man in charge.

Map

He says that while he has no presidential ambitions himself, the job is not a bad preparation for being in charge of the country.

"I've got 178 workers under me. You need to know how to manage them," he says.

The Gorodets collective farm has recently been bought up by a bank. But it is a very Belarusian kind of privatisation - the bank itself is state-owned.

The farm itself is like a microcosm of the country as a whole: a place where people work on the land, earn low but stable wages, and are largely respectful - and obedient - to those in authority.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Belarus elections
26 Sep 08 |  Europe
US lifts some Belarus sanctions
05 Sep 08 |  Europe
Profile: Alexander Lukashenko
09 Jan 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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