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Belarusian history links a dismal present to a more encouraging past

Belarus's election. Archive 13.09.2001. From The Economist print edition

There are few better antidotes to despair in Eastern Europe than an old town soaked with good ideas from long ago. Even in the darkest years of communist rule, Czechs, Poles, Balts and others could take comfort from the visible signs of happier days. That is much harder for the 10m people of Belarus, who face five more years of stagnation and autocracy under their newly re-elected president, Alexander Lukashenka. On September 9th he claimed an implausible 76% of the vote in a presidential election that western observers say fell well short of international standards of fairness.

Compared with its western neighbours, Belarus often seems a featureless country, both aesthetically and in national character. What two world wars did not destroy was mostly rounded off by Soviet planners and russifiers. Belarus managed barely nine months of independent statehood in 1918-too short to sustain the patriotic zing that helped other East Europeans to shake off Communist rule.

History helps answer two depressing questions. First, why do so many Belarusians-perhaps more than half of them-genuinely think that an autocratic regime based on a bullying personality cult is so fine? After all, even allowing for the election's unfairness, a lot of Belarusians plainly do like Mr. Lukashenka. Second, why are the disgruntled rest, who broadly oppose his style of rule, unable to do anything about it? Even in a fair election Uladzimir Hancharyk, the main opposition candidate, who was officially credited with 15% of the vote, would probably have fared less than brilliantly. Opposition demonstrations against the election-rigging have already fizzled out.

Travel around a bit, and answers emerge. For a start, the third of the country that used to be part of Poland has at least a dim recollection of a fairer and more prosperous life. "Those were the good times," says a crone selling apples on polling day outside the 15th-century Mir Castle, one of the country's few surviving historic buildings, 95km (60 miles) west of Minsk. Unprompted, she starts reciting a liturgy in creaky, heavily accented Polish. Western Belarusians are more likely to look west for democratic inspiration.

In contrast, it was typical that the man probably best able to oppose or expose the ballot-rigging, Russia's top election official and observer-in-chief, Alexander Veshnyakov, was enjoying a leisurely, liquid snack with local nabobs inside the castle, well away from the flimsy, easily-stuffed ballot boxes and official intimidation that blighted the election. Sure enough, his team of observers said they found nothing to worry about.

Patriotic Belarusians have little reason to like the 20-odd years of Polish rule in the west of their patch before the second world war, even though the eastern chunk, under Soviet rule, fared incomparably worse. Bitter memories of forced polonisation have faded, though: now the Poles are useful allies in the broad democratic coalition that Mr. Lukashenka defeated. In the north-western town of Hrodna (Grodno), for example, the strongest element of the opposition is the Union of Poles. Denying the official charge that it encourages separatism, it demands more Belarusian and less Russian in schools.

Really comforting memories, though, mean going back not decades but centuries. Travel another 50km westwards from Mir, and you come to Navahrudak, a town which for symbolic importance in Belarus is something like Shakespeare's Stratford and Magna Carta's Runnymede combined. A mere 700-odd years ago, it was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rus (Ruthenia), its Slav-speaking chunk. Later, when the grand dukes moved to Vilnia (Vilnius), capital of present-day Lithuania, the court at Navahrudak had a Europe-wide reputation for fairness. The grand dukes compare well with the current rulers of Belarus on matters such as religious tolerance and the rule of law. At its peak, the country was a superpower stretching from the Baltic down to the Black Sea. It can be argued that its official language was indeed an archaic form of contemporary Belarusian. A popular opposition calendar features the greatest grand duke, Vitaut, who reigned from 1392 to 1430.

But there is a more modern source of inspiration in Navahrudak too: as the home of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), a poet who embodies the values of the Enlightenment-freedom, reason, supranationality. "A symbol of everything good that we want," says Tatiana Tsaryuk, a local Belarusian opposition campaigner. Using Mickiewicz as a symbol of Belarusian patriotism is a bit of a stretch: he wrote in Polish, though one of his most famous works (confusingly) begins "Lithuania, my fatherland", and the Poles consider him their own national poet. It is a fair bet that most Belarusians are only dimly aware of him, even less so of Belarus's distant but glorious past when it was part of Lithuania. Official propaganda still overwhelmingly stresses history's Soviet version: Belarus as a grateful partner of big brotherly Russia.

Most Belarusians in opposition hope that, as the economy declines and the docile Soviet-minded generation dies off, people may start thinking differently, not just about politics and history. But some fear that a few more years of Mr. Lukashenka will see Russia gobble their country up. That, they recall, was roughly what happened to the remains of the grand duchy. And Mickiewicz died in exile.

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