Soviet theme park

  • 2001-09-13
Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a former Soviet collective farm director, has been reelected for a second term in Belarus. Opposition candidates were not allowed equal access to the media during the campaign. Before the first vote was cast, the West made it clear that it considered the whole exercise undemocratic.

Lukashenka uses dirty methods to suppress the slightest challenge to his rule. A number of prominent opposition figures have simply vanished, and several others have fled into exile to avoid a similar fate. Thugs from the KGB - the Belarusian security service is still known by this name - beat up opposition figures and independent journalists, the State Committee for the Press shuts down newspapers that dare to criticize the regime, and club-wielding police crush protest rallies before they can even begin.

Belarusians will not be able to oust Lukashenka the way the Serbs got rid of Milosevic. The biggest problem for Belarus is the Soviet mentality of most of its people. Lukashenka would probably win even if this election was fair. Democratic ideas are much more widespread in Yugoslavia.

We, the Baltics and the rest of the West, evaluate Belarus on the basis of our own values - private ownership, a market economy and democracy. But these values are empty words for the majority of Belarusians.

The Balts suffered Stalin's repression for nine years; Belarusians experienced the terror of Lenin and Stalin for 30 years. Two decades of Baltic independence between the wars means a lot.

Every nation has the kind of government it deserves, unless that nation is occupied by a foreign power. Lukashenka would be powerless if hundreds of thousands of locals protested against him in front of his office.

Lithuania has a 660-kilometer border with Belarus. This border will soon be the eastern border of NATO and the European Union. Vilnius' mission is to export democracy to its isolated neighbor. Lithuania has long been a haven for oppressed Belarusian opposition members. And in 1999, Rimantas Pleikys, a former Lithuanian MP, launched a Vilnius-based news radio station called Baltic Waves, which is broadcasting into Belarus in the Belarusian language on the AM dial.

At the same time, official Vilnius has managed to maintain good relations with Lukashenka. Belarus's unsubtle leader has enough insight to realize that Lithuania could become a moderator between him and the opposition if he ever started to lose his grip on power. Washington and the European Union realize that Lithuania could be a useful channel of communication with Lukashenka. Foreign politicians are already known to ask Lithuania for advice on Belarusian issues.