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Friday, 22 June, 2001, 18:38 GMT 19:38 UK
Belarus stuck in a timewarp
Protesters outside the Belarussian embassy in Kiev, Ukraine (1999)
Protesters use humour to attack the president
By Caroline Wyatt in Minsk

Yelena Simko is embarrassed to show us her kitchen, and equally embarrassed that she has only eggs and bread to offer her visitors. The kitchen is tiny, and has no running water, though Yelena is proud that her son has built her a water pump outside the house. It saves her walking to the village well.

But Yelena is immensely proud of her immaculate garden, with its tightly-packed rows of garlic, lettuce and onions. This is how she feeds herself and her family.

Map
Yelena's salary as a children's nurse is just 20 a month, though she works long hours. At the age of 68, this kindly white-haired woman should have been able to retire years ago - it is just that she cannot afford to.

Welcome to Belarus, a country with the education and an infrastructure that should put it on a par with its neighbour, Russia.

Instead, 10 years after the collapse of Communism, it is following a kind of Soviet Third Way. Its President Alexander Lukashenko calls it 'market socialism', but it involves a lot of five-year economic plans that do no quite work.

At the moment, farmers are being encouraged to grow bumper harvests for the reward of a free carpet or TV set from the state. It seems appropriate, coming from a former collective farm director turned president.

Oppression

Mr Lukashenko was swept to power on a wave of popular support in 1994. He liked being in power so much he decided to stay, extending his term of office by presidential decree.

A few years ago, he coined a marvellous slogan for his people - telling them "you will live badly, but not for long".

I think he meant that life would improve for the 10 million people of Belarus, though the opposition disagrees.

President Alexander Lukashenko
Alexander Lukashenko: Will run in election
Not that there is much opposition. Mr Lukashenko severely discourages it.

Opposition leaders and journalists critical of his regime have a tendency to disappear - the victims, the government claims, of mysterious kidnapping gangs.

Likewise, the recent student demonstrations on the streets of the capital Minsk ended with armed police making several arrests. The students' crime was to use humour as a weapon, donning masks with Mr Lukashenko's trademark Stalinesque black moustache. They played out scenes in which the masked Lukashenko figures were the lunatics who had taken over the asylum.

The president failed to see the funny side.

As I relax on a park bench in Minsk on a gloriously sunny day, it seems hard to believe that political opponents here can simply disappear. Young men and women in jeans and trainers walk by, laughing and carrying cans of beer. They look like any western teenagers.

Fear

But the opposition leader we meet tells a different story. He has just come out of prison - his crime was to criticise Mr Lukashenko. But he still calls him a dictator, and says there is almost no freedom of the press in Belarus.


The old Soviet joke seems curiously apt in Minsk - 'we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us'

Perhaps that explains why Yelena shook so nervously when we interviewed her - even though she was saying how good life is here. Yelena said she would definitely vote for Mr Lukashenko again, when elections are held in September.

She said life now was almost as good as it had been in Communist times. Then she hastily corrected herself. No, life now really is much better.

Not everyone agrees, though Belarus is the sort of place where people do not talk easily to strangers - especially westerners. Mr Lukashenko has made it clear what he thinks of the west - throwing out western ambassadors whom he claimed had been plotting against him, and threatening to jail foreigners who interfere with the election.


It is a theme park of the Soviet Union - a place where time has stood still

Yet a few people do stop to talk to us in the park, their words almost drowned out by the fairground rides nearby.

"We are afraid," admits one woman. "It's in our blood."

"Our parents and grandparents learned fear in Soviet days and now we can't get rid of it."

The old Soviet joke seems curiously apt in Minsk - "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

If you have the money, you can buy almost anything. The main department store is a glorious Soviet building - full of marble and gilded pillars. Now it is also full of things to buy. The L'Oreal make-up counter is surrounded by a group of young girls in fashionable clothes. They look longingly, but opt in the end for a cheaper local make.

Sitting in the park watching children on a merry-go-round, I suddenly realise what Minsk reminds me of. It is a theme park of the Soviet Union - a place where time has stood still.

Security men are on every corner; the place is too neat, and too tidy. Everything is orderly, regulated.

Yelena cannot imagine life being any different - but younger people here can. And as one westerner here whispers very quietly as we leave: "These are good people, and they deserve better."

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See also:

07 Jun 01 | Europe
The disappeared of Belarus
19 Jun 98 | Europe
Alexander Lukashenko: a profile
16 Oct 00 | Europe
Belarus vote condemned
04 Jun 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Belarus
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