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Jews in Belarus Walk Tightrope As Lukashenko Sweeps to Victory

March 21, 2006
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Boris voted for the opposition candidate in this week’s election in Belarus — even though he knew Alexander Milinkevich wasn’t going to win. “I only want to be given a chance to vote freely and choose freely who I want,” said Boris, a 36-year-old Jewish businessman who asked that his last name not be used.

In contrast, an elderly Jewish woman named Mila is a major supporter of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been the authoritarian president in this former Soviet republic for the past 12 years. Lukashenko won his third term in office Sunday amid widespread international condemnation of the vote.

“I wish him long, long years and want him to remain our president forever,” Mila said while attending a service last Friday night in Minsk’s Simcha Reform congregation.

The opposition, she said, “wants to sell us out to America.”

Boris, for his part, joined some 5,000 people at an opposition rally in a Minsk square Sunday night to show disagreement with the official vote count and their solidarity with Milinkevich.

According to official results, Lukashenko received nearly 83 percent of the vote while Milinkevich got about 6 percent. Voter turnout was a record 93 percent.

Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm boss, has maintained a strict, state-controlled economy, and has capitalized on low unemployment and stable, if meager, living standards.

He may be considered a dictator by the Western world, but for many of his own people — especially for pensioners, rural citizens and workers at state-owned plants — he is a great politician who has ensured his nation a stable and crisis-free development after the turmoil of the initial post-Communist years.

A country of 10 million people, Belarus is home to anywhere from 20,000-70,000 Jews.

While Boris was staunch in his support for Milinkevich, much of the country’s official Jewish community took a different approach. Despite Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, the Jewish community has managed to retain a certain level of independence while avoiding political involvement.

“We don’t mix our community in politics,” said Leonid Levin, a renowned architect and president of the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Organizations and Communities, an umbrella group.

Jewish leaders cite both fear of repression and the solid support Lukashenko enjoys among older Jews as reasons for avoiding political activity. Yet community leaders have felt safe enough to criticize authorities for what they believe is a weak response toward anti-Semitic incidents, particularly vandalism, and toward hate-filled books and newspapers.

“Lukashenko is not an anti-Semite himself,” said Yakov Basin, a longtime Jewish leader and civil rights activist in Minsk. “But there are some people around him who are.”

Eduard Skobelev, a member of the presidential entourage and editor of the official Presidential Bulletin, is a prolific anti-Semitic writer, and authorities ignore community complaints against his writings.

Showing up for the opposition rally was a courageous step for many Belarusians: In recent years, dozens of opposition leaders disappeared without a trace and many more were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Two days before the vote, Lukashenko threatened to “wring the necks” of opponents preparing to take to the streets, and the KGB — which has retained its Soviet-era name — said police would arrest protesters as terrorists.

“In school, we were told that anyone who goes to the rally and gets detained will be expelled from school,” said Veronika, a Jewish high school student in Minsk.

On Sunday night, dozens of trucks with police and special forces filled the streets of central Minsk but no force was used, and the protest ended peacefully.

Milinkevich, who campaigned on a pro-democracy ticket, said the rally was people’s “victory over fear.”

The opposition called on people to show up in the same square Monday night, but fewer were expected to attend.

Observers from Western countries said the elections did not meet democratic standards, citing repression of the opposition and the fact that Lukashenko’s rivals had virtually no access to state-controlled airwaves.

“Independent newspapers are being closed and television offers no alternative point of view,” Basin said.

In the months before the elections, state television was fanning hysteria over “some worldwide anti-Belarusian conspiracy,” Basin said.

That conspiracy allegedly included not only Western countries but Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics where popular protests over rigged elections have brought down governments in the past two years.

Before the vote, Belarus imposed strict control over everything coming from Ukraine and Georgia, apparently out of fear of the “export of revolution.”

Jewish officials in Belarus experienced the fear firsthand: Nearly five tons of matzah has remained at a customs terminal in Minsk since early March, and the community has been unable to get the shipment.

The matzah was baked in Kiev, and Jewish officials were told they could get the shipment only after the elections because customs suspected that any shipment from Ukraine could contain opposition propaganda material.

Yet observers believe Lukashenko’s fear of a repeat of the 2004 democratic upheaval in Ukraine is misguided.

Until the fall of communism, “Belarus never had a state of its own, and ethnic identity here has always been weak,” Basin said.

In addition, years of repression weakened the opposition and spread political apathy.

“Even those who disagree with the official line do not believe they can change anything,” Basin said.

Echoing that apathy was a group of Jewish students who gathered at the Minsk Jewish Campus last Friday night to celebrate Shabbat with the local Hillel.

“Everything has been decided and counted,” one of the students said of the upcoming vote.

None of the students planned to attend the post-election protests.

“We want to live peacefully,” one said.

Despite the regime’s oppressive character, Jews as individuals are relatively safe in what the West has labeled “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

“There is no discrimination against Jews” on the government level, Basin said.

But some wonder if Lukashenko may order a crackdown now that he has received a third five-year term in office.

“The main question is whether there will be mass repression after the election, whether the screws will be tightened even more,” Basin said.

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