Around the Jewish World: Belarus Jews Fear Country Headed Toward Dictatorship

The Jews of Belarus, like many others here, are fearful that they will have a dictatorship by the end of the year.

A crisis broke out in the spring, when this former Soviet republic’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, unveiled a plan to hold a national referendum on expanding his powers and extending his term into the next century.

In recent months, Lukashenko engaged in a bitter struggle against Parliament over the plebiscite.

Members of Parliament have accused Lukashenko of attempting to set up a dictatorship with a secretly drafted constitution that would dangerously increase his powers.

Most of the major political parties in Belarus have called on Parliament to start impeachment procedures against Lukashenko.

The Parliament has meanwhile drafted its own version of questions for the referendum, which is slated for Nov. 24. Some questions in that version deal with the abolition of the presidency.

“We are about to witness extremely serious events,” said Israeli Ambassador Eliyahu Valk.

An escalation of political tensions “could lead to a coup d’etat, a change in the country’s leadership and even bloodshed,” he said.

Lukashenko, 41, has been accused by critics of taking an increasingly authoritarian line since he was elected the first post-Soviet leader of Belarus two years ago. He has cracked down on the opposition and curbed civil liberties, prompting outrage from human rights watchers.

A former Soviet hard-liner who was a collective farm director, he has also suspended trade unions, closed independent newspapers and a radio station, and effectively halted the country’s program of economic reforms.

Nonetheless, recent public opinion polls show that Lukashenko still enjoys support from 44 percent of the electorate.

“Belarus is very different from other former Soviet republics,” said Valk, a native of Riga, Latvia, and a former member of the underground Zionist movement in the Soviet Union.

“Suffice it to say that Belarus is the only former Soviet republic that celebrates the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as a national holiday,” he said.

The Jewish community of Belarus, along with many others here, has expressed concern over the current political crisis.

Jews “cannot remain indifferent about our country’s future,” said Boris Ozersky, director of the Belarus Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities.

“This is an uneasy time for both Jews and non-Jews,” said Frida Reizman, chairman of Hilf, a charitable society for former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners.

The Jewish community of Belarus is estimated to number about 100,000, or 1 percent of the general population. Some 20,000 to 30,000 Jews live in the capital of Minsk.

The Jewish community here is not monolithic in its political sympathies.

Some, especially those living in the provinces, support the president. But most Jews are likely to back the opposition in the plebiscite.

Many said they were afraid to express their views openly.

Larisa, a 20-year-old economics student from Minsk, said she had participated in opposition rallies several months ago.

But now, she said, “I’m not going to an opposition march because I’m really afraid that I might be expelled from the university.”

In an interview last year with a German newspaper, Lukashenko expressed praise for Hitler’s economic policies.

Though he later downplayed his remark and said he felt no admiration for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Belarus Jews were shocked at his comments.

Nonetheless, some Jewish leaders here felt that the government has been supportive of the community.

“The authorities are ready to listen to our basic needs,” said Ozersky, who declined to provide examples of any government support the community was getting.

Other Jewish officials said they had little fear that Lukashenko would harm the Jewish community.

“Belarus still needs to receive wide recognition on the international arena, so they won’t harm the Jews here,” said Baruch Kamil, the Jewish Agency’s representative in Belarus.

A remark by a government official supported this view.

“The attitude toward Jews in a modern country reflects the level of democracy in that country,” Education Minister Vassily Strazhev said at the opening session of an international academic conference, “Jews in the Changing World,” held recently in Minsk.

In the years since Belarus became independent, the organized Jewish community has sought to reunite people with their Jewish roots, particularly through educational programs.

“In the early ’90s, there was nothing, and today we have 16 Sunday schools throughout Belarus, one Jewish day school and a Jewish people’s university in Minsk,” said Leonid Levin, president of the Belarus Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities.

The Chesed Rachamim charity center, one in a network of centers that opened across the former Soviet Union, provides services for about 4,000 Minsk elderly and needy Jews.

The center was opened a few years ago through the efforts of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Many Jewish activities in Belarus are focused on the theme of the Holocaust.

During World War II, 865,000 Jews were killed in Belarus, including 200,000 Jewish deportees from Western and Central Europe.

“We are just starting to tell Belarus the truth about what happened to its Jews 50 years ago,” said Reizman, a former internee in the Minsk ghetto.

Last year, about 4,000 Jews emigrated from Belarus.

“Many just gave up the hope that the life here will ever change for the better,” said Ozersky.

But at the same time, he added, “Many people are rediscovering their Jewish roots.

“Those who would not identify themselves as Jews during Soviet times are regaining their Jewishness today.”

Some local Jews say that the Jewish community in Belarus will cease to exist in 10 to 20 years.

“One-third is likely to emigrate, one-third will assimilate and the rest will simply die,” said Yakov Basin, a communal leader from Minsk.

“Our goal is to change this ratio so that there will be Jewish life here in the next century.”

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