Eyewitness: Echoes of Soviet era reverberate through Belarus elections

July 6, 2001

Belarus is preparing for presidential elections after seven years of the increasingly authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko. As the president shows his lack of regard for the democratic process by trying to buy votes and belittling opponents, the campaign is also affecting academic activity.

All state employees have been promised bonuses if they spend the summer working for Mr Lukashenko's re-election.

Students will be affected by the September 9 election date. Belarus has revived the Soviet practice of drafting students to collect the harvest.

Siamion Domash, a pro-democracy potential presidential candidate, said that students would have to register their votes early, which would give great scope for manipulation.

"The most significant thing to date is Mr Lukashenko's challenge to the other aspiring presidential candidates to a roller-skating race," said James Dingley, head of the language unit at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. "[Mr Lukashenko] seems to want to show that he is young and active, and so get support."

The president, Mr Dingley said, "appears to make such remarks off the cuff" to gain popularity. But remarks such as "[would-be presidential candidate Natallya] Masherava can't possibly become president because she's a woman" seem unlikely to win him female votes.

The election campaign is restricting the few foreign academic exchanges in the country.

Alan Flowers, principal lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at Kingston University, cited the case of a student set to study land management and agriculture in areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Last month, the Belarusian partner in the project, the Sakharov University of Radio-Ecology (SUR) in Minsk, warned that residents of the contaminated zone might be barred from speaking to foreigners because of the campaign. When the student reached Minsk, he was told by the head of human sciences at the SUR that he should not carry out or tape-record any interviews - he should simply conduct "conversations" during which he could take notes.

Dr Flowers said: "[The student] can still undertake valid research under these circumstances. However, it would of course be preferable if full documentary methods could be used."

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