Lukashenko stirs mixed emotions in Belarus village

By Lidia Kelly

LIDA, Belarus | Sat Dec 18, 2010 11:52am EST

LIDA, Belarus (Reuters) - As he always has in the past, Antoni Kurowski will vote against President Alexander Lukashenko when Belarus holds an election on Sunday.

But the 48-year old hospital driver knows his vote and those of his family members will make little difference to the outcome. Lukashenko, the strongman who has ruled the former Soviet republic for the past 16 years, is certain to secure another five-year term.

"I do, do hope one day we'll succeed, that we will get rid of him and it will be a huge victory," said Kurowski, who comes from a village near Lida, as he shopped for Christmas gifts with money saved from his monthly salary of $700.

Western powers accuse Lukashenko, 56, of maintaining an iron grip on power through fraudulent elections, crackdowns on opponents and muzzling of independent media.

In the vote on Sunday, he faces a disorganized assortment of political opponents, who lack access to state-controlled media channels and must wage their campaigns without a proper party structure behind them.

In the capital Minsk, Lukashenko's popularity is overwhelming. He has spent years cultivating a paternalistic image and many supporters see him as a safe pair of hands in uncertain times.

But in Lida, an old city of 100,000 located in western Belarus where many people, including Kurowski, have Polish roots, support for the Belarus leader is weaker.

"I know that some 60 percent of my village is not going to vote for him, he hasn't done much good for us," Kurowski said with a smile that revealed a row of gold-plated teeth.

He said he would vote for Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet who one of the main opposition candidates.


For 31-year-old Alessia, who wouldn't give her surname because she works at Lida's city hall, a change is exactly what the country needs.

"I would finally find out what democracy means," she said, buying a pink plastic doll for her 5-year old for Christmas. "I was still very young when he (Lukashenko) came to power and now I'm not that young, but I still don't know what it means to live in a democracy."

She said she planned to vote for dissident politician Nikolai Statkevich, a retired colonel who heads a social democrat party.

Others think differently -- even in Lida.

Andrey Semyonovich, 40, runs his own retail shop, a rarity in Belarus where more than 80 percent of the economy is in state hands. He said rules for those outside the government sector were clear under Lukashenko and he didn't want to risk change.


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