WASHINGTON - Driving into the Eastern European nation of Belarus last month, Sen. Dick Durbin says he felt as though he'd entered the set for a movie about a bygone era.
Five border checkpoints opened to a barren landscape with scant development and no billboards or advertising of any sort. Arriving in Minsk, the capital, Durbin took note of many casinos and the hotels filled with women with the look of Russian models.
Sitting ominously in the middle of it all was the huge, temple-like KGB building, the symbol of oppression that haunts Belarus to this day.
"I thought, my goodness, I've stepped back in history -- to the Stalin era," Durbin, D-Ill., recalled this week.
Durbin's assessment was close, having entered the domain of President Alexander Lukashenko, known variously as the last European dictator and the Bully of Belarus. He has led Belarus for 16 years.
Durbin met with families of some of the seven candidates who challenged Lukashenko in Belarus's December presidential election and were imprisoned afterward. Two of Lukashenkos' opponents are still locked up, Durbin said in an interview this week.
Since returning, Durbin has been pressing Congress and the Obama administration to step up the United States' pressure for the type of reforms in Belarus that have begun playing out in Egypt and the Arab world.
Likewise, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., is making some of the same points to his colleagues in the House. Shimkus was an election monitor in Belarus in 2006 and has been an advocate for the Belarusian people during his years in Congress.
After the recent Belarus election, Shimkus went to the House floor to read a list of names of Lukashenko's political opponents and journalists rounded up by secret police.
He displayed blown-up photographs of security forces beating protesters.
"Yes, in Belarus, they still call the secret police the KGB," Shimkus said.
Shimkus and Durbin both have family roots in Lithuania, which borders tiny Belarus.
Durbin observed that most Americans would have trouble finding landlocked Belarus on a map. The former Soviet state, which also borders Russia and Poland, has a population of less than ten million people and is not known in the West for its strategic importance.
But Durbin says that if politicians in the U.S. and Europe don't continue applying pressure, the Lukashenko regime never will release its iron grip. He noted that four of the imprisoned presidential hopefuls had released from prison since his visit.
And last week, the Obama administration announced additional economic sanctions against the Belarus government.
"These are just ordinary people in Belarus trying to achieve the things we in America have, like free elections," Durbin said.