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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
The last dictator

By MARK MacKINNON
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Apr. 22, 2003

Minsk — Getting Alexander Lukashenko to answer questions is as tough task as trying to understand the President of Belarus from afar.

As I made preparations for my trip to the country dubbed alternately dubbed the "last dictatorship in Europe" or the "hermit kingdom" by outside observers and Western diplomats, I heard an appalling collection of tales from human-rights groups and pro-democracy advocates concerned about the country's direction after a decade of Mr. Lukashenko's rule.

Their main accusations were straightforward and damning - that Mr. Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, ruled largely by fear and intimidation and was committed to rebuilding a replica of the old Soviet Union inside the increasingly isolated and ignored Belarus.

Mr. Lukashenko obviously deserved a chance to answer such serious charges. My translator Tania called up the presidential administration and told them that I was going to be in Minsk for five days - at a hotel right across the street from Mr. Lukashenko's office - and that I would be interested in hearing his response to the myriad accusations against him.

It was less than a surprise that the answer was an immediate no. Mr. Lukashenko has given extremely few interviews to foreign journalists in recent years. In his televised speeches to the nation, he has warned Belarussians to be wary of foreign journalists, since most, he says, are spies for countries hostile to Belarus.

I was more taken aback when we called the presidential press service a day later and asked the head of it, Pavel Legky, if he could answer our questions on Mr. Lukashenko's behalf. "If I meet with journalists asking for interviews, I would not be able to work at all," said Mr. Legky, a man whose job title seems to suggest he should try and find the time.

Helpfully, though, he directed us to the President's own personal website (www.president.gov.by), and said we could e-mail questions through the site on the off-chance the apparently web-savvy Mr. Lukashenko deigned to answer them. I typed up my six biggest questions and sent them along in an e-mail to the president. As of yet, there's been no answer.

I wrote the e-mail on my first day in Belarus, and the questions were quite general - stuff like "how do you respond to the accusations of human-rights groups?" and "why is your country so much poorer than Poland?". I thought that if the topics were broad enough, he might be more inclined to answer them. After five days in this time capsule of a place, however, I have a few more I wish I'd asked:

Q. Mr. Lukashenko, you say the breakup of the Soviet Union was a crime. What's to be admired about a system that killed tens of millions of its own citizens and for decades used military force to control its neighbours?

Q. Why do your policemen whistle and run after tourists who take pictures near your rather drab and uninteresting office building? Why do they have time to crack down on jaywalking, but never make any progress investigating the "disappearances" of some of your political opponents?

Q. Are you really a neat freak like people here say and do you really change your shirt four times a day? Does that personal quirk explain why Minsk is kept so freakishly clean?

Q. Why, when you have so much power in Belarus, do you keep gathering more to yourself while crushing any form of dissent? What are you scared of?

Only Mr. Lukashenko can answer these questions. In Belarus, no one else I talked to could claim to know the answers.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.