Saturday, March 18, 2006

Europe's Last Dictator Ready For Exit?

It's easy to make fun of Alexander Lukashenko. A former Kolhoz director, a brusque way of talking, a cheesy moustache and a slavish loyalty to Russian don, Vladimir Putin, make it easy comical picken's with the Belarus strongman. Now that Slobodan Milosevic has truly exited the European scene forever, the boilerplate applied to Alexander is that he is Europe's last of the dictators. It's not a hard case to argue. Belarus is caught in a time warp. It's like the Soviet Union never died. Hammers and sickles abound, the KGB is still kicking, usually the crap out of what opposition there is, and the shops are bereft of all the consumptible goodies found in the West. On the other hand, the economic indicators aren't all bad either. The World Bank, of all institutions, admits from 1996 to 2004 the economy grew by 6.6 percent and one fifth of the people moved out of poverty. And that other bastion of capitalism, the IMF, says real wages have nearly tripled. Ol' Luke has ruled Belarus for twelve years now, and one Sunday he'll likely get another five as the country holds a presidential election. Nevertheless, Lukashenko is a little nervous. He's seen old guard communist-vintage leaders fall in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, all due in large part to p.r. savvy and internet-connected 'youth movements', all coached and funded by the West, namely Washington. Lukashenko has done his darndest to make sure they don't get into his country to corrupt his country's youth, not entirely successful however. Not one to mince words, Luke has vowed to "ring the necks" of anyone who thinks there'll be a revolution in Belarus a la Georgia and Ukraine. The KGB has warned it'll lock up protesters on charges of "terrorism" if they take to the streets after polls close on Sunday. On Saturday, anonymous leaflets in Minsk called for revolution and mobile phones received text messages either encouraging protests or warning people not to fall victim to bloodshed. The leading opposition candidate, Alexander Minkevich has called for his protesters to take to the streets on Sunday as soon as polls close, making it almost inevitable things will get ugly. Interestingly, the Czech "Week" news magazine reports many of Belarus's yuggens are likely to vote for Lukashenka. Many have joined the president's "Youth Union." The reason is simple. Membership opens doors to sought after university faculties. The rector of the country's top university put it simple to his students, telling them their stipends are two times higher than in Russia, and in the Baltic states they've practically disappeared. "See where so-called capitalism leads?"