Belarussian Opposition Looks To Distracted EU

After the Soviet Union broke up, Belarus — squeezed between Russia and the European Union — kept its Soviet-style economy and its Soviet-style leader. President Alexander Lukashenko has clung to power all these years by promising full employment and by crushing his political opposition. Still, as Europe struggles through a major economic crisis, it's not paying much attention to this former Soviet state.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to a European country that has long seemed frozen in the past. Even after the Soviet Union broke up, Belarus squeezed between Russia and the European Union, kept its Soviet style economy, and its Soviet style leader.

President Aleksander Lukashenko has clung to power all these years by promising full employment, and by crushing his political opposition. Still, as Europe struggles through a major economic crisis, it's not paying much attention to this former Soviet state. Here's NPR's David Greene.

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DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: This is the scene inside a Belarussian company that repairs farm equipment. Alright, forget the Russian version of Abba that's blaring out of that old radio. This could be any American factory. Employees are hard at work, goggles on, hands and uniforms greasy.

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GREENE: Then again, there's something different about this company. Even through the recent global recession, director Ivan Ilkevich says he hasn't lost business. And he hasn't had to lay off a single one of his 27 employees.

IVAN ILKEVICH: (Through Translator) The government here does everything it can to make sure workers are not thrown out on the streets. The government gives people this confidence that even when it's hard, they'll have a job. They may have to live modestly. But then, things will always get better.

GREENE: It's not like things are great in Belarus. There was a currency crisis this year. The Belarussian ruble was devalued, and prices for food skyrocketed. Yet, many Belarussians compare their own situation to places like Greece.

ANDREI SAVINYKH: And they see that there is no paradise somewhere else.

GREENE: That's Andrei Savinykh, a veteran Belarussian diplomat who's now communications director for the foreign ministry. He says he spent a long time listening to fellow diplomats in Europe lecture Belarus about its authoritarian style of government.

SAVINYKH: The fact that the lecturers are facing economic hardships is probably the - well, it's an indication that life is just after all.

GREENE: Savinykh insists he takes no pleasure in Europe's troubles. Yet, there's no doubt the people usually criticizing Belarus are distracted at a time when the political situation here could not be worse.

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GREENE: These were the sounds in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, in December. Riot police rounded up demonstrators who were accusing President Lukashenko of winning a rigged election. Most of the opposition candidates were also thrown into jail, including Ales Mikhalevich. My last time in Minsk, in February, I spoke to his wife, Milana, while her husband was in prison.

MILANA MIKHALEVICH: That's what they want us to do, to keep silent, to hide, to pretend we don't exist. We do exist.

GREENE: On this trip, I reached Ales Mikhalevich in Warsaw.

ALES MIKHALEVICH: Now, I'm in the European Union.

GREENE: After being released, he fled through Russia and Ukraine to reach the EU. During two months behind bars, he says he was beaten countless times.

A. MIKHALEVICH: I was not ready for such things because I still expected that Belarus is so close to the European Union. We have three neighboring countries which are in the European Union. So I didn't expect that they will use such methods against former presidential candidates.

GREENE: Mikhalevich and other opposition leaders say they're still fighting for democracy in Belarus, even if it's from outside the country. But they're not confident the EU has their backs.

A. MIKHALEVICH: European Union is very much interested in their own problems. We had a meeting with Angela Merkel, German chancellor. So it was visible that she was totally into absolutely different questions. So her head was thinking about different things.

GREENE: That brings us to Russia. As Vladimir Putin gets ready to return as president next year, he says a key part of his foreign policy agenda will be to create a Eurasian Union that would bring Russia and Belarus under one currency. Analysts say this is all part of a new reality. Since Soviet times, the U.S. and EU haven't spread their political philosophy as far east as they'd planned.

David Greene, NPR News, Minsk.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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