- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

ZHLOBIN, Belarus One of the drabbest buildings in this gray city is a low-slung concrete block on the windblown outskirts of town that has been Pavel Mazheika's home since September: Dormitory No. 3.
Despite the name, there are bars on the windows and police at the metal gate in the lobby. And Mr. Mazheika's roommates are not students. One was convicted of bribery, another is a deadbeat dad and the third tried to steal a car.
Mr. Mazheika is a journalist, one of three sentenced to internal exile last year on accusations of libeling President Alexander Lukashenko, whom critics accuse of bringing back Soviet-era authoritarianism that keeps dissent under wraps and has the economy stumbling.
Since September, Mr. Mazheika has been waking at 6:30 a.m. to a deafening alarm, spending 11-hour days lifting logs at a sawmill and walking outdoors to get to a shower. Inmates must be in bed at 10:30 p.m., and the large window in the door to each room means guards can look in at any time.
Mr. Mazheika, 24, was initially told he would serve his sentence near his home in the western city of Grodno. But at the last minute he was sent to Zhlobin in the southeast of this former Soviet republic, 265 miles from home.
An amnesty has halved Mr. Mazheika's two-year "limited freedom" sentence. He says his guards have told him that he may be offered early release for good behavior but that he may have to admit guilt first, something he will not do.
"I do not regret that I want to live in a normal country with freedom of the press and freedom of speech," he said.
Mr. Mazheika was convicted for an article that suggested the president uses violence against opponents. The article appeared only on the Internet because the newspaper's print run was confiscated.
Mr. Lukashenko, 48, was elected on an anticorruption platform in 1994. He soon cracked down on dissent and has resisted economic reforms, keeping the economy under firm state control. In 1996 he dissolved parliament and created a loyal legislature after a referendum that boosted his powers and extended his term by two years.
Diplomats say authorities have stepped up efforts to stifle independent media that criticized Mr. Lukashenko during the September 2001 campaign, when he won a new five-year term in a vote that the United States and European Union said was neither free nor fair.
Human rights advocates say nine newspapers were shut down or forced out of business last year. The nation of 10 million is the only former Soviet republic where the security service is still called the KGB. Many citizens won't give their names if they criticize Mr. Lukashenko for fear of being found out and punished.
"His chief ally is fear," said opposition politician Anatoly Lebedko, whose office wall bears portraits of six politicians and other figures who died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances in recent years. The opposition accuses Mr. Lukashenko of involvement in the disappearances.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Kozak compares Belarus unfavorably with surrounding former Soviet-bloc countries that have pursued democracy and market economies.
Belarus "is kind of the black hole in the doughnut, where everybody else moved forward and they moved backward," Mr. Kozak said. "It's a highly unsustainable situation to be that far out of step with all your neighbors."
Still, Mr. Lukashenko retains support, particularly among the elderly, by playing on a deep desire for law and order, and nostalgia for the Soviet era.
"He's a good man. He is on the right path," said Valentin Golodayev, 71, a pensioner who lives in a spare but warm cottage beside the road to Minsk in Red Army Kolkhoz, a collective farm outside Zhlobin. "He brought order. Right after he became president, they built a new fence here and fixed up the road."
Where the same road enters Zhlobin, Valentina Naumenko was slapping cheap white paint on a fence on a bitter winter day, one of two dozen workers called away from their jobs to brighten up the route that Mr. Lukashenko planned to use in visiting the city.
A 40-year-old who is struggling to support three teenage children and has not left the Zhlobin region for more than a decade, Mrs. Naumenko said she backs Mr. Lukashenko because her parents' pensions and her monthly salary, worth just less than $50, are paid on time. "We can't complain," she said.
Increasingly, however, Belarussians are complaining about delayed wages, the falling buying power of their pay and the lack of economic reforms that many people, especially the young, believe are necessary.
"It is impossible to live well without some sort of big change," said Nikolai Simakov, 25, who works on customs issues at the Belarus Metallurgical Factory, a hulking plant on the edge of Zhlobin that employs more than 15,000 of the city's 75,000 residents.
Marat Afanasyev, an opposition political party member who works in construction planning at the factory, pointed to its three towering smokestacks as symbols of the failure of Mr. Lukashenko's economic policies. It was early on a weekday afternoon, but all three were idle.

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