Lukashenka polishes performance as election approaches

  • 2001-05-17
  • Nick Coleman
MINSK - For retired head teacher Irina Petrenko the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II means everything. She proudly shows off the Lenin statue in the center of Machulischi, a former military base near the Belarusian capital, to which she and her husband - an air force colonel - have retired. Then she heads off down a dusty avenue lined with notice boards bearing slogans. "Honor your military traditions!" reads one. She slows her pace only when she reaches the village's other landmark, a gleaming fighter jet, mounted on a steel strut at a 45-degree angle. "The feeling of liberation is still in my heart," she says.

But some Belarusians question why President Alexandr Lukashenka, who runs Belarus as his personal fiefdom on the edge of Europe, is so attached to the idea of the war. Human rights groups say he looks set to rig September's elections, which would secure him another seven years in office.

He is using the mythology of the war, in which a quarter of Belarus' population died, to rally his key supporters - old people, particularly in the countryside - on whom he depends to maintain a veneer of respectability.

"Lukashenka knows how to influence the minds of older people," says Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civic Party. "He has created a miniature Soviet Union."

The absence this year of tanks and missile carriers from Victory Day celebrations on May 9 may simply have been due to fuel shortages. But Lukashenka was going the extra mile to portray himself as a man of the people - leading a procession of veterans, some carrying portraits of Lenin and Stalin, under the gaze of an army of plain-clothes security agents.

Belarusian TV, a Lukashenka mouthpiece, which research shows is watched by the elderly, showed the ceremony in Victory Square on all four terrestrial channels, blocking out all broadcasts from Russia. Lukashenka addressed the crowds beneath words that are permanently mounted on top of the surrounding buildings: "The people's heroism is undying."

In his speech, he railed against corrupting foreign influences. "We will not tolerate dictation and pressure, whatever the source."

This even prompted Ivan Pashkevich, a senior member of the usually pliant national assembly, to describe the speech as "sacrilegious" electioneering.

While Lukashenka's elderly supporters are poor, they are not as poor as the young, who show no enthusiasm for their president, says Leonid Zaiko, president of Strategy, a non-governmental economic think tank. "My mother's pension is $45 per month, but that is more than the average young graduate's salary."

According to the United Nations Development Program, 40 percent of 15-to 17-year-olds were suffering from chronic diseases in 1999, while those who were completely healthy numbered only 13 percent to 15 percent. Unemployment is highest among those under 30.

Human rights campaigners say that before receiving their diplomas, young graduates are often forced to work for two years in southeastern Belarus, which remains severely contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.

At a meeting of the youth wing of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front in Minsk, 17-year-old Denis, recently arrested for taking part in a peaceful demonstration, says he is determined to stop Lukashenka. "We appreciate what people did in the war, but our government uses it for its own ends. My school was instructed to send 10 people from each class to Victory Square."

A handful of old people also object to Lukashenka's use of the war. One is 69-year-old Ernst Sibila, now an evangelical priest. In his poky flat in Minsk, where he holds illegal prayer meetings, he explains how, at the age of 11, he and his parents joined a Soviet partisan unit, deep in the forests of southern Belarus. "I could easily infiltrate enemy bases," he says.

But he was appalled by his own side's torture of captured prisoners and once back in school he campaigned against the Soviet regime. At 19 he was tried for subversion and spent the next 13 years being transferred from one concentration camp to another across the Soviet Union. "The fascists shed less blood than the Red Army," he says. "The only victory I recognize was at Golgotha, 2,000 years ago."

Holocaust historians are wary of attempts by some Belarusians to downplay the Soviet victory over Germany. But the Holocaust is not on Lukashenka's agenda, or many other people's. Near the Minsk ghetto where thousands of people died, a youth leader at a Jewish cultural center says: "People don't want to learn about Jews. It's boring. Everyone suffered."

Meanwhile in Machulischi, Mrs. Petrenko says she has no complaints about Lukashenka, despite having lost all her savings due to the collapse of the Belarusian ruble. "It's hard for the students, but I think Lukashenka tells the truth. My husband and I will vote for him."