Beguiled in Belarus

Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday claimed a third term after receiving a whopping 82.6 percent of the vote, in what critics are calling a blatantly rigged election. International observers have stated that the election did not meet accepted standards, and that voting intimidation ran rampant. European Union leaders are now threatening to impose limited sanctions on Belarus.

This scenario is nothing new. Critics have long called Lukashenko a dictator, well known for his excessive behavior and public rants: he once closed a highway so that he could rollerblade; he banned the wearing of face masks in public. And recently, Lukashenko had vowed to prevent mass movements like those that occurred in Ukraine in 2004 and swept Western-leaning Viktor Yushenko into power.

Nevertheless, some 10,000 people turned out in Minsk on Sunday evening during a blizzard to show their disagreement with the polling results. Most protestors were young, including many twenty-somethings who have no memories of Soviet days when the communist party unfailingly always won nearly 100 percent of votes. Belarus’s main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich received only 6 percent of Sunday’s vote. He called the official vote tally for Lukashenko “monstrously inflated.” He and other opposition leaders have called for additional peaceful protests – in defiance of a government ban on election-day rallies.

In Belarus, the Soviet Union still lives in many senses. Most of the economy is under state control and the government makes 5-year economic plans. Mr. Lukashenko has resurrected statues of Lenin in Minsk, and the city’s main square is still called Oktyabrskaya Square. The KGB still spies on and harasses political opposition.

It is true that President Lukashenko does maintain a large number of supporters because of his access to cheap Russian energy and the stability he has provided pensioners in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. Many older Belarussians claim that Lukashenko has improved their standard of living since his ascension to office in 1994. And Belarus has never been a rich or powerful country.

But the generation gap is growing. Older people remember how the population was decimated and Minsk razed during World War II, and how the nation’s health suffered from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station accident. Younger people want a modern and convenient democratic country, and have less fear than their grandparents did of the Soviet government and its secret police, Stalin’s purges, artificially created famines, and hard labor camps.

Belarus has witnessed tough times in its long and torrid history; it will see tougher times ahead if genuine popular opposition to Lukashenko continues to grow and potentially violent clashes between democracy-seekers and riot police ensue.

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