In his seven years in power, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has done his utmost to turn the clock back in Belarus by broadening state control over his citizens' lives and bringing the country closer to Russia. But young people stand at the forefront of those who seek change and who would like their country to reorient itself toward Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten met with some of them in Minsk, and here is his report
Minsk, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Among Belarus' treasures is the Belovezhskaya national park, where virgin forest grows and bison roam, as they did in ancient times. But these days, locals joke in the capital Minsk that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has outdone all the region's presidents in his environmental efforts by turning the whole country into Europe's largest preserve of a bygone era.
While globalization proceeds apace elsewhere, Belarus remains stalled in the late Soviet era: no Internet cafes, no trendy stores, no foreign investment, no open borders. In Minsk, citizens stroll along cavernous avenues framed by slogans extolling the masses, state stores sell shoddy Chinese goods, policemen guard the eternal flame and nearly every major intersection. Newspapers sing paeans to the government leadership. Communist statues still stand, but on the corner of Lenin Street there is one small concession -- a brand new McDonald's, which has become a meeting place for young people.
Those who orient themselves to the West swim against the tide in Belarus. Most dissidents -- as they did in Soviet times -- are reduced to discussing their ideas around the kitchen table. Those who make their views public can expect an interrogation at KGB headquarters.
But as the date for this September's presidential election draws nearer, some young people are becoming outspoken in their desire for change. Aksyuta Kashkevich, a university student, is press secretary for the Union of Belarusian Students. As a nonstate body, her organization faces continual harassment from the authorities. After receiving two official warnings, the state can shut down any private organization. As Kashkevich notes, some of the objections put forward by the government are Kafka-like in their absurdity.
"The Justice Ministry is just looking for any pretext -- you have the impression they are sitting, magnifying glass in hand, and looking for anything they can use to issue us a warning. Take our symbol, for instance, which is white and red. When we print documents, our printer only copies in black and white and so the star comes out black and white. They told us: 'This is not the way your organization was registered.' And they issued us a warning."
During the past academic year, Kashkevich says, 10 of her colleagues were questioned and threatened before being released by the KGB. But she says her group is determined to ensure that as many young people as possible involve themselves in the opposition's budding electoral campaign against the president -- and vote.
"Our aim is to say that everything is up to us and that our voice is equally important. Why are pensioners, who've already lived their lives, choosing for us? They lived their lives under the Soviet Union and they will choose the same life again as they know no other. Why, if we want change, do we give away our voice and sacrifice our right to choose our fate?"
In an effort to retain the support of older people, Lukashenka has raised pensions to the point where they often surpass the average wage -- which continues to dwindle. University students, in the meantime, have been saddled once again with the Soviet-era institution of 'raspredelenie' -- under which fresh graduates are assigned jobs for two years, at a minimal salary, as a payback to the state for their education.
Jobs in the capital are often reserved for those with posts in the state-sponsored Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth. Others, often the brightest students, are sent to the most backward regions or the zone of Chornobyl contamination.
Last week, as the motorcades of CIS leaders raced around Minsk, most people interviewed on the street expressed indifference. But students vented their frustration and anger. Twenty-year-old Stepan expressed a common grievance:
"The thing is that I don't see any single move forward despite all these CIS gatherings. There have been no concrete steps to improve the lives of the people of our countries. Because of this, I think all these kinds of summits are just ceremony. They only bring inconveniences. For example, the center of the city is constantly being sealed off and we're forced to make detours."
Stepan's fellow student Oksana was even more cutting in her remarks:
"I am certain that nothing normal can occur in our country, by definition, due to the present direction at the very top. I hope what I'm trying to say is clear to everyone. I think everything will be decided in the autumn and now I try to be apolitical in order not to lose my inner energy. I get very angry when I think about the situation."
Oksana and Stepan say they are tired of being cut off from Europe, tired of always being compared to Russia, tired of what they regard as President Lukashenka's attempts to resuscitate a dead ideology.
"In the end, with this integration, this union [with Russia], we will turn into the same northwestern region of the Russian state -- as was the case at the start of the [20th] century. I don't want this. If this country is to develop, it has to happen along national lines. (The French philosopher) Montesquieu said that if a country has a vast territory, by definition, it can't be orderly. I see Russia as a hole into which they're trying to drag our Belarus. I don't want that."
Professor Oleg Manayev, head of the country's leading independent think tank, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research - or NISEP -- tells RFE/RL that Lukashenka's support -- even among his former supporters -- has been eroding steadily.
"The trend is that whereas five years ago, the number of people actively supporting the president's policies was much larger than the number of those opposed, today the situation has changed."
Surveys conducted by NISEP show Lukashenka's support is lowest among the young and better educated city dwellers. But whether this will translate into electoral defeat for the incumbent president is another question altogether. The opposition has yet to put forward one candidate.
"Whereas the part of society that supports the current course has its own man who embodies this policy and they love him, appreciate him and support him -- and that is current President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- the part of society that finds the current course unacceptable and wants to change it, has had no such figure up to now."
Even if such a figure appears, the fairness of the September vote remains highly doubtful. Manayev says:
"Let's ask ourselves this question: There are two alternatives, black and white. One possibility is that Lukashenka goes for free and fair elections -- to a degree -- and as a result, he is not re-elected. He loses power. That's on one end of the scale. On the other end, he does not allow free and fair elections. He organizes a show in the way he knows how, and he wins-- through falsification, by pressuring the opposition, by ignoring international demands -- whatever it takes. What are the results? One way, he loses power. The other way, he retains power but he is not legitimate. The international community does not recognize him. What's more important for him?"
Many young people in Minsk will go to the polls and they will vote for change. If their expectations are dashed again, many say they will vote with their feet and seek to emigrate.