TIMES, September 09, 2003 by Roger Boyes

Belarusian dissidents who despair

The citizens of Minsk recently witnessed the bizarre scene of Belarusian council workers revving up lawnmowers to drown out lessons at a school that was forced to hold classes outside after President Lukashenka, Europe’s last and most eccentric dictator, closed it down. The Jakob Kolas grammar school had dared to teach in the Belarusian language — an affront to Mr Lukashenka, who is trying to «Russify» the educational system. It had also allowed discussion of such subversive notions as democracy, leading the President to condemn it as a «nest of opposition».

When the school was closed for «renovation» and the 140 pupils, parents, teachers and sympathisers reopened it on rough wooden benches outside, KGB agents filmed the crowd but refrained from charging in with batons. «They are smart enough to know that they should not create martyrs,» Katharina Tytschina, 23, a teacher, said.

Increasingly, the youth of Belarus are leading the opposition to a 49-year-old leader whose country has changed little since the Soviet era. Some openly mock him; a student wearing a Lukashenka mask was chased through a park by other students in white coats shouting: «He’s escaped, stop him!»

Until it was banned recently, a satirical magazine lampooning Mr Lukashenka was sold on university campuses by a bearded 29-year-old economist named Pauluk Kanavalchyk. It was called Navinki, the name of a mental hospital outside Minsk. «That way everybody knows what it’s about,» he said with a grin.

European Union subsidies are being used to train young journalists to put tricky questions to politicians, and last month Mr Lukashenka expelled Jan Busch, 30, a German politician who has been helping to set up civic education classes for young people in the Belarusian provinces. The response «has been incredible», Herr Busch said. «That’s why the KGB got interested — closing down seminars, harassing participants and throwing me out of the country.»

It remains to be seen whether the young dissidents pose much of a threat to a president whose security machine is larger than the army, and who has one policeman for every ten citizens. But their despair is entirely understandable.

Mr Lukashenka’s behaviour is increasingly bizarre. He has streets cordoned off so that he can take part in — and win — roller-blading competitions. He requisitions diplomatic residences and paints them pink. He bans anyone, from the head of the local chess club upwards, from calling himself president. He openly admires Hitler’s economic policies.

The President has an obsession with cleanliness, changing his shirt four times a day. His capital city reflects this tic: cleaning squads work around the clock. There are no beggars in Minsk, no drunks, no buskers, no dogs and no birdsong. The Times saw an old woman being bundled into a van for trying to sell parsley.

Visitors call Belarus a Soviet time capsule because of the nagging sense of being followed and observed; to stand in any of the huge, steppe-like central squares is to feel as small as an insect and at the same time infinitely exposed.

But the analogy does not hold. Even under Stalin, still admired by the Belarusian President, there were dirt and pickpockets and some form of spontaneous public life. Mr Lukashenka, whose dream is to unite Belarus with Russia and become Vice-President of the new Slavic commonwealth, has created his own, sterile Brave New World.

But, Mr Kanavalchyk argues: «Lukashenka is not really mad. Look at how rationally he does things that are for show. People don’t notice what is going on beneath the surface, the damage he’s doing to society.»

Mr Lukashenka has not only stayed in power since 1994 but has split the opposition, won clearly rigged referendums and virtually guaranteed himself perpetual rule.

«This is the new opposition,» Mr Kanavalchyk says of the school protesters and youth groups. They are taking over from older, disgruntled nationalists who have never recovered from the kidnapping of their most charismatic figure, Viktor Gontschar, who was abducted by commandos while sitting in a sauna four years ago. Most dissidents assume he has been killed.

Mr Gontschar used to be close to Mr Lukashenka when they were both parliamentary deputies impatient with corruption.

«Lukashenka used to sit there where you are sitting now,» Mr Gontschar’s wife, Zinaida, a 46-year-old biologist, says in her living room. «Lukashenka used to visit my mother-in-law, and he would ring us all the time.» Since the kidnapping of her husband, the telephone has not rung. «If he had a clean conscience he would have at least expressed condolences. Instead I’ve been trying to reach him since 1999.»

Mrs Gontschar estimates that 5,000 Belarusians have disappeared. «Many are ordinary people not known to the outside world.» She gazes out of the window of her flat; it is the same street of flaking apartment blocks where Lee Harvey Oswald lived shortly before killing John F. Kennedy. Minsk, hidden, secretive, has always attracted dangerous oddballs.

Mrs Gontschar, who refuses to be called a widow until her husband’s corpse turns up, sighs. «We could all disappear one day, and nobody will look for us.»