Where a cover girl is girl next door

By Steven Lee Myers The New York Times

MINSK, Belarus Something has changed on the boulevards of this city, though it is not so easy to spot. This much can be said: Cindy Crawford, reported to be a precipitating cause, has disappeared from Minsk's billboards. So have the likes of Kate Moss or "those French women with grubby faces."

That, anyway, was how President Aleksandr Lukashenko put it when he bemoaned the propagation of foreign models on billboards "at every road crossing, including where the president drives."

In a country where political power is absolute, where public dissent is not tolerated, where an all-compassing, Soviet-like state controls what it pleases, Lukashenko's remarks a year ago eventually became a decree and then the law.

Models who appear in public advertisements - whether on billboards, on television, in newspapers or magazines - must now be Belarussian.

"Photograph ours there and let them advertise the watches of our factories and imported watches, too," Lukashenko said. "Let them pay our girls."

The law, which took effect in April, has roiled Belarus's modeling and advertising industries. Accompanying the citizenship requirements for models, all modeling schools and agencies were required to seek new licenses. And those were not forthcoming.

Sergey Nagorny's agency, the country's most prominent, received its license only last month. It was the second, after the state's newly created agency, the National School of Beauty. Before the law, there were 25.

Companies with well-planned promotional campaigns also had to scramble to comply, often by significantly revising their ads.

"We have had difficulties in getting models for shoots," said Raman Lapchuk, an account manager for Hepta Group Publicis, an advertising agency here that represents such international companies as Renault, L'Oreal and Hewlett-Packard. In some cases, he said, "We just used images without humans."

Lukashenko's decrees are often the subject of ridicule - openly abroad, less so here - but the campaign against foreign models is an example of how he maintains power, appealing to populist or nationalist sentiments even as he exerts greater control over economic, social and political life.

Not long ago he decreed that at least 75 percent of songs played on radio stations be Belarussian - an autocratic whim, perhaps, but one that was popular among musicians who received more exposure on air.

On the streets of Minsk, the visible result has not exactly been dramatic.

The new law coincided with new state advertising campaigns that included tributes to the 60th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II and paeans to the Ministry of the Interior ("We are always next to you," one says in a message larded with double meaning here in what is considered a police state.) Those campaigns have had, arguably, a more noticeable impact on the cityscape.

For those ads featuring models, not militiamen, it is now safe to assume they are Belarussian. While Slavic beauty - fair hair, fair skin, sculpted cheekbones - is a recognizable, even fashionable thing, it is difficult to quantify a uniquely Belarussian version of it.

Lukashenko's bureaucracy found a solution: Every ad must now be submitted for approval to a new committee that requires a copy of the model's passport.

The law had stated motives, including supporting local jobs to campaigning against human trafficking (since at least some modeling agencies have been accused of luring vulnerable young women into prostitution abroad).

But Lukashenko's critics - at least those who dare to speak out, given that statements discrediting the state will soon be punishable by up to three years in prison - say the real goal was in keeping with his drive to limit contacts with the outside world, especially Europe and the United States.

A law passed by the lower house of Parliament last week, for example, would impose restrictions on Internet dating and marriage agencies, especially those catering to foreigners. It would also restrict college students from studying abroad without expressed permission from the Ministry of Education.

"There is a general trend that the government wants to control the social sphere in every way," said Andrei Dynko, the editor of Nasha Niva, an independent newspaper with a precarious future following a decree ending its right to be distributed through the state postal system.

And yet Lukashenko's decree on models has support. Olga Seryozhnikova, director of the National School of Beauty, said the law had brought order to a chaotic, at times exploitive industry. Instead of using foreign models on ads typically prepared abroad, companies must now hire locals - at $25 to $50 a shoot.

More important, as a former model herself, she said that those in the business now had a formal title in the country's Soviet-like labor classifications. They are now called "models (clothing demonstrators)," with what was and is again known as a labor record, a necessity to receive a pension later in life.

"It will be like it was in Soviet times," Seryozhnikova said.

An obvious beneficiary of the change would seem to be Olga Antropova, crowned Miss Belarus last year. She is already the celebrity face of a Belarussian lingerie company, Serge. The law, she said, should help Belarussians "to realize themselves."

Belarus, though, remains a poor country, with few prospects for free-market expansion, given that the state controls about 80 percent of business. Lukashenko's decree might create more opportunities for models here, but as Popova said, "No decree can turn Minsk into a modeling center of the world."

Those with prospects do what aspiring models do everywhere. They head to Paris, New York or other fashion centers. Miss Belarus - perhaps the most recognizable face in Belarus, excepting Lukashenko's - has recently accepted a job with a modeling agency in Miami.