Books on Belarus
Update No: 323 - (26/11/07)
An embattled regime
Belarus braces beneath the dictatorial rule of President Alexander Lukashenka,
who tries to control industry, information, and ideas. Open dialogue and
self-examination have not been possible for Belarus, a country of 10 million
people that is not even two decades old. Yet on the inside, even with
Lukashenka's campaign for conformity, opinions are everywhere.
In this land-locked edge at the geographic centre of Europe, expression still
battles repression behind borders that defy time.
Neighbours north and west - Latvia, Lithuania, Poland - have joined the European
Union, bringing its boundary closer. Even Russia, just to the east, has
collapsed toward a form of capitalism and risen mightily, if not democratically,
The outcome of a long history
A thousand years ago, the city of Polack, near to Minsk, held regional power
within Kievan Rus, a Slavic state covering territory now in Belarus, northern
Ukraine, and western Russia. When the larger state broke up, Polack's rulers
kept local control.
Just after World War I, a newly formed Belarusian republic fell under Soviet
control. Later more than 2 million Belarusians died when World War II fighting
flattened Minsk, Brest, Polack and many other cities, and hundreds of villages.
Belarus gained independence only with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
History plays tricks, though, and a second city, Navapolack, built on the ruins
of Polack, was put up when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union. It still
processes oil shipped from Russia. Much of it continues on to Western Europe.
What stays, sold by Russia at discounted prices, has helped keep Belarus close
to its long-dominating neighbour.
Lukashenka, a former collective farm director, (which banal description in
soviet speak disguises the fact that this gave the powers of a regional
magnate), was elected three years after independence in 1994 and has fixed
elections and the constitution ever since. He is called by many, seriously and
not, Batka, or Father. His stern, square image - thick moustache, broad
shoulders often in a business suit, far less today in a hockey or soccer uniform
- anchors state news reports.
The Lukashenka government controls most major enterprises and agriculture under
a system of market socialism. When it began to promote rural tourism development
by individual land owners, many seized their chance and became firm supporters
of the president.
Main Street Minsk
The revolutionaries, the Soviet heroes that is, are everywhere, even if hard to
see when night falls in the capital, and all is shimmer and shine.
Yet they are there, the revolutionaries, even on a weekday evening, stoic in
stone. Vladimir Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution nearly a century
ago, stands on a pedestal above a wide square that has an underground luxury
shopping mall beneath it.
A few blocks down Independence Avenue, a bust captures the face of Felix
Dzerzhinsky, a Bolshevik who founded the notorious Cheka secret police and
embraced the idea of terrorizing citizens inside the newborn Soviet Union.
Dzerzhinsky watches from a shadowed park, just across the street from the KGB,
the Belarusian secret service that still goes by its Soviet name. This is the
real core of Belarussian society, with its 150,000 loyalist functionaries.
Lukashenka needs nostalgia to counter new thoughts. He guards old practices,
too: imprisoning business and political opponents, keeping independent
journalists out of print and off the air, blacklisting artists who perform in
support of his opponents, kicking students out of school who don't cheer state
Revolutionaries of another kind exist too, muffled if not muted. There was a
failed Denim Revolution last year, when riot police dispersed crowds in a
central Minsk square. A promising European March in Minsk on October 14 drew
only a few thousand people. But in the weeks before the march, the government
jailed opposition organizers.
This was not without popular support in the provinces. Is Lukashenka a hero? He
is letting survivors of an exhausted generation grow old amid relics of a
familiar life, stark yet sustaining. Elsewhere, the Soviet collapse and
subsequent swing to capitalism brought economic shock and suffering.
In Belarus, even critics concede the crash has not yet come. Is keeping control
- with state farms, for example, even if unprofitable - worth the cost of
It depends on who you are, your age and prospects.
Side street Minsk
Too comfortable? That has been a key question recently, as Russia has begun to
raise the discounted prices it gave Belarus for oil and gas. Lukashenka talks
about deals with Iran and Venezuela. Russia plans to charge higher world-market
prices for the energy that powers Belarus. Then, perhaps, the economy will
collapse, taking Lukashenka with it.
Uncertainty lingers miles from the middle of Minsk, where streets come with
cracks and apartment blocks do not have a noble Stalinist flair, but soulless
But if people don't like it they can always leave. Travel outside the country is
not uncommon: There are flights from Minsk to Frankfurt, Paris, Moscow, and Tel
Aviv. Trains run to Vilnius, north of Minsk, and Warsaw, west. Internet
connections and mobile phones facilitate the exchange.