Facebook Twitter

ONLINE DOCUMENT: BELARUSSIANS LONG FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF THE SOVIET UNION

SHARE ONLINE DOCUMENT: BELARUSSIANS LONG FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF THE SOVIET UNION

The rewards of a loyal and obedient Communist past are still proudly exhibited in display cases flanking the grand entrance of the Belarussian parliament.

The glass cases are filled with red Communist flags and certificates of Lenin, awarded to the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic for fulfilling the Soviet Union's five-year plans in the 1970s and 1980s."We will achieve the victory of Communist labor!" says the quotation from Lenin on the certificates.

More so than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union, the reluctantly independent nation of Belarus is entangled in a swamp of hazy nostalgia and confusion. Its identity is torn between its never-renounced Communist heritage and its uncertain capitalist future.

The Belarussians have spent 600 years as a colony of one empire or another, never really feeling much desire for sovereignty. Yet in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, they unexpectedly found themselves in an independent state. The unwanted burdens of freedom have left them embittered and unhappy.

After four years of economic turmoil, they yearn for the glory days of the Soviet Union, when their rulers in Moscow made all decisions and solved all problems.

The icons of Communism are prominently displayed in every corner of the country. Its parliament is still called the Supreme Soviet. Its streets have kept their old Soviet names. Its domestic security agency is still called the KGB - in fact, this is the only place in the world where the KGB still officially exists. A statue of "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, remains in its prominent place across from the KGB headquarters, just down the street from a huge Lenin monument.

Alexander Lukashenko, president of this nation of 10 million on Russia's western border, has resurrected most of the old Soviet state symbols that disappeared briefly when Belarus became independent in 1991. He's brought back an almost identical version of its Soviet-era flag, installed Russian as an official language and ordered schools to return to their Soviet textbooks.

On the facade of the parliament building, the symbol of Belarussian independence - a knight on horseback - has been torn down, revealing the Soviet hammer and sickle. The post-Soviet flag has been declared illegal and protesters who carry it have been arrested.

Unlike the other former Soviet republics, Belarus is almost untouched by the passions of ethnic nationalism. The Belarussian language is rarely heard in parliament or in the senior circles of government. More than 95 percent of the people speak Russian as their main tongue, without a trace of resentment.

The main nationalist group, known as the Belarussian Popular Front, was influential in the early years of independence. But in the last parliamentary election the Popular Front was virtually wiped out. It has not a single seat in the current parliament.

Lukashenko has maneuvered as closely as possible to his giant Russian neighbor. He has allowed Russian military bases on his territory, allowed Moscow to dictate his foreign policy and negotiated a customs union to remove the economic barriers between the two countries.

"Union with Russia is historically determined," Lukashenko said in a speech to the Supreme Soviet earlier this month. "We are fated to live in a union with Russia. That is what our people want."

Like almost everyone else in parliament, Lukashenko spoke entirely in Russian when he addressed the chamber.

One of the deputies listening to Lukashenko's speech was Valery Shukin, a member of the large Communist faction in parliament. At first glance, he might seem a nationalist - his shirt is colorfully embroidered with a traditional Belarussian design. Yet he, too, speaks mainly in Russian. The Belarussian language, he believes, is nothing more than a dialect of Russian.

He insists that the Soviet Union must be revived, to bring Belarus back into Moscow's embrace. "We are one and the same country," he said.

That's a widespread sentiment in Belarus these days and it infuriates the small minority of Belarussian nationalists - especially Zenon Poznyak, the firebrand leader of the Popular Front. He still seethes with anger at the eradication of Belarus's language and culture in the Soviet era.

By 1989, after a ruthless 70-year period of Soviet dominance and Russian assimilation, there wasn't a single Belarussian-speaking school in Minsk. "It was a genocidal policy," Poznyak said. "Our leaders did everything they could to destroy our culture."

In the early years of independence, he helped to convert schools to the Belarussian language. By 1994, more than 70 percent of those in Minsk had switched to Belarussian in the first five grades.

But then Lukashenko took office, promising to reverse the nationalist policies. Today, only 19 percent of the 200 schools in Minsk are still using the Belarussian language and the Belarussian texts have been replaced by Russian books. Poznyak believes there is a danger that the language could become extinct.

The Popular Front, which once had 40,000 volunteers, now has only about 10,000 members. Critics say it has become an intolerant and dogmatic organization. Its influence has waned as Belarussians begin to see Moscow as their savior from economic woe.

But the conspiracy theory is contradicted by the historical evidence. Belarus has always been dominated by its neighbors, and many people seemed to prefer it that way.

For many Belarussians, the question now is whether to seek a formal political union with Russia.

The Russian parliament has already called for tighter integration between the two countries, and a majority of Belarussians voted for closer links with Moscow in a referendum last year.

But there's an emerging consensus that a political union would go too far.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the former Belarussian leader who signed the 1991 agreement leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, says he has no regrets about his involvement in its death. And he doubts that the Belarussian Communists can revive it, despite their loud rhetoric in its favor.

"They know that the Roman empire can't be restored," he said, "and neither can the Russian empire."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)