In Belarus, An Election Day With Soviet Style

by David Greene

Almost two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some say it's still possible to visit it. Just go to the small nation of Belarus, a former Soviet Republic on the doorstep of European Union countries like Poland and Lithuania.

Belarus always seems to be Europe's fault line. In 1941, Nazis charged eastward, but a small battalion of Soviet soldiers in Belarus famously held strong, slowing Hitler's charge for weeks. Today, Belarus is holding firm again, refusing to succumb to democratic wills - despite the presidential election being held Sunday.

The monument at the Brest Fortress, where Soviet soldiers fought the German advance in 1941.

Rose Previte

The monument at the Brest Fortress, where Soviet soldiers fought the German advance in 1941.

A Monument To The Past

At the scene of that World War II battle, the gently flowing river that snakes through the snowy forest is called the "Western Bug." Through history, it's always felt like an important borderline. To the east, it's the Orthodox religion, to the west, Catholicism. In World War II, this is the spot where Hitler's forces crossed the line from Poland into the Soviet sphere.

The Soviet republic of Belarus held its ground against the Nazis in a bloody struggle. The remains of the fortress where Soviet soldiers fought and died is still here. Today, it's a monument with war music blaring across the icy landscape.

Tatyana Zankovetz, a 25-year-old tour guide, points out the head of a soldier carved into a massive gray rock. It's the Red Army's Mount Rushmore. In the background there's a banner with the hammer and sickle.

Soviet memorabilia fits perfectly in Belarus. Almost 70 years after those soldiers defended the Soviet Union, no one, it seems, has told Belarus the Soviet Union is gone. The economy remains so centralized, Russia looks like a beacon of capitalism. Belarus kicked out the U.S. ambassador two years ago and relations with the West are sour.

Zankovetz says she has a lot of relatives in Poland, just a half-mile away. It may as well be the other side of the world. Visas to go to the EU are expensive, so Belarusians can't go that often to see friends and family.

During our tour, five young students march by, three boys, two girls. They were top in their class at their high school. Their reward: to dress in Red Army uniforms and pay respects at this battlefield.

Still A Soviet Era

Just up the road from the fortress is the city of Brest, which certainly keeps its Soviet legacy. Western journalists are followed around by men in black.

There are rules for everything. I ordered butter at a restaurant, and my server said that was forbidden. She said the butter they had was only for cooking. There was no way for her to document my purchasing it, since it's not officially on the menu.

And, of course, there's Sunday's presidential election, which most western observers expect to be more of a coronation for President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been in power for 16 years. He controls the media, and the other nine candidates aren't being given airtime in the final two weeks before the country votes.

The only election ads you see are like the one I'm looking at in the train station. It simply says the word "Vuiburi," which means "election" in Russian. It's printed on a green and red poster, and it looks like one of the Christmas decorations.

The Dream That Didn't Come True

Oleg Suprunyuk, a newspaper reporter in Brest, traveled around Europe and marveled at the freedom all reporters enjoy. His weekly newspaper is one of few not under state control. It's gotten its share of government threats.

"Many things which were in the former Soviet Union, they remain here," he says. Over coffee, Suprunyuk says his hopes were high after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Lukashenko was just getting started as a candidate.

"He spoke highly of mass media and he promised that when he was president, all press would be free," Suprunyuk says. "But in 16 years of power, nothing has happened. We are not free."

On Sunday, Suprunyuk says he'll cover the election like a real reporter, writing about candidates, telling every side of the story. He's clearly fighting in his country's latest war for freedom.


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