'Father' Lukashenko omnipotent in his Soviet showcase capital


MINSK LETTER:Belarus's president came to power in 1994 on a promise to bring order and stability

EIGHTEEN YEARS after the Kremlin's empire crumbled, Minsk still feels like the living dream of the Soviet city planner, a monument to the order and discipline of the central committee, a grandiose expression of the power of the politburo.

The avenues run long, broad and true across the capital of Belarus, sweeping through echoing squares and public parks that are eerily neat.

The boulevards are flanked by huge pastel-coloured buildings whose facades are studded with ranks of small windows and occasional balconies. Further out, tower blocks march toward the horizon, disheartening the pedestrian by their sheer size and uniformity.

On the central Victory Square, a golden five-pointed star glimmers atop an obelisk of dark stone, and from the rooftops behind it strident red letters proclaim: "The achievement of the people is immortal."

Overlooking a flickering eternal flame, such slogans still mean something to the people of Minsk, one of 12 places designated "Hero Cities" by the Soviet Union in honour of their fierce resistance to Nazi occupation, and the suffering endured by their residents.

Minsk was quickly seized after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

But it soon became a hotbed of Soviet resistance, prompting brutal retribution from German troops who are believed to have killed some 400,000 civilians during three years of occupation. It was also the site of a ghetto housing some 100,000 Jews.

As the Red Army rolled back the German invaders in 1944, Minsk saw the desperate last stand of the Nazi occupiers, and intense fighting levelled the centre of the city.

When the guns fell quiet, barely 50,000 people were living in a city that had been home to some 300,000 before the war, and Minsk's historic heart was a sea of rubble.

Stalin's architects filled this blank page with the monumentalist creations that so pleased the dictator, stone symbols of the state's omnipotence and crushing reminders of the individual's vulnerability.

Other cities in the former Soviet Union were largely rebuilt after 1945 in a similar style, but Minsk has maintained an air of authoritarian authenticity that is hard to match.

Here, it seems, the buses run on time, the streets are clean, the parks are perfectly manicured and the homeless are invisible, largely because of one man - Alexander Lukashenko, the former Red Army officer and state farm boss who has governed Belarus like a fiefdom for 14 years. He came to power in 1994 on a promise to bring order and stability to Belarus and its 10 million people, at a time when much of the old Soviet empire was gripped by hyper-inflation, crashing currencies, spiralling rates of crime and corruption, and even civil war.

Speaking before last month's general election, in which only Mr Lukashenko's allies won seats in parliament, many older Belarusians said they appreciated the strong hand of the man who likes to be called "Batka", or "Father".

They thanked him for saving them from the "bandit capitalism" that blighted Russia in the 1990s, the political and social upheaval that has rocked Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution, and the violence that has wracked Georgia in recent months.

Younger Belarusians professed less gratitude to Mr Lukashenko, but few appeared willing to openly oppose a man whom the United States has dubbed "Europe's last dictator".

Knowing that opposition activists and their families are routinely harassed by the police and KGB security service and suffer discrimination at university and in their workplace, many Belarusians prefer to focus on their studies or their jobs rather than getting involved in a political scene which they believe cannot be changed.

Walking down Minsk's central Independence Avenue a couple of days before the election, it was hard to find anyone with enthusiasm to vote, or a belief that the ballot could influence the way Belarus is run.

"Parliament means nothing - everyone knows who makes the decisions in our country," said Vitaly, a heating engineer.

Elena, a translator, agreed: "Only a change at the top would have any effect, and there's no chance of that."

Extraordinary buildings keep appearing around Minsk - such as a new national library that looks like it has just landed from Mars - despite the country's deepening debt to Moscow and fears for the future of the cheap Russian oil and gas that have fuelled Belarus' steady economic growth.

These landmarks are monuments to Mr Lukashenko's power, self-aggrandising gifts from "Batka" to a nation that is allowed no say in how he spends their money, or on whether someone else would do it better.

Heading for Minsk airport at 3am, the taxi moves past workers repairing tramlines and sweeping clean the darkened streets.

Ever-vigilant, Mr Lukashenko makes sure public transport runs smoothly through his neat and tidy update on the ideal Soviet city.