Nikolai Statkevich tried to buck the system in 2001: he ran for President of Belarus. The country calls itself democratic, but President Alexander Lukashenko, in power for 11 years, runs it like the last dictatorship in Europe and brooks no challenges to his neo-Stalinist rule. That's why Statkevich, 49, leader of the opposition Social Democratic party, found himself confined to a prison barrack in the town of Baranovichi, 120 km west of Minsk, the nation's capital. Last March, the government sentenced him to three years of forced labor for "resisting the authorities and obstructing traffic" during a protest in October 2003. So now Statkevich rises to the dawn sound of reveille, submits to a body search and roll call, then walks for an hour to a damp, cold shop where he repairs radios. This is the only work authorities will allow Statkevich, who holds a Ph.D. in technical sciences, to do. At 6 p.m. he walks back to prison for the night.
None of that has cowed Statkevich. He meets a Time correspondent during his lunch break in a modest café routinely bugged by the local kgb. (Lukashenko's secret police expressly retained the old Soviet acronym to play on Belarusians' ingrained fears.) But the prisoner of conscience doesn't seem to care what listeners might hear. "They packed me away because I said I would run for the presidency again," he says, looking as trim as the lieutenant colonel of Soviet missile forces he once was. "They assigned me to a room with six brutes, drunk, dirty, unkempt," he says. "In a week I taught them to behave and wash their socks." Then he turns serious. "In these 15 years, the Belarusian people have acquired a national identity and the desire for an independent country of their own. First it was just a minority, then this feeling took over the majority," he says. "The same will happen with democracy. It's the minority who start." Throughout lunch, a plainclothes cop is standing by the window outside. "He is a police major," says Statkevich. "Not a bad guy, but he has to follow the kgb orders."
A kgb of the old school is just part of what makes Lukashenko's Belarus such a throwback to the Soviet past. Statkevich is not the only opposition leader doing time: in the last decade, at least 4,000 citizens have been imprisoned on political charges. Under a law passed in 1998, any word or action interpreted as an offense against the President can be punished by up to five years in jail. Lukashenko's writ is enforced by the highest number of police per capita in Europe, and his government has cracked down hard on human-rights and democracy organizations that criticize him. The U.S. and Europe have repeatedly condemned Belarus as an outpost of tyranny.
Even at the forgotten edge of the Continent, a land where one man ruthlessly controls all state institutions, the economy and the media would seem ripe for the kind of popular uprising that has swept other repressive regimes from power in Ukraine and Georgia. Yet here the public at large seems to show little taste for rebellion. Opinion polls are highly unreliable: some show 60% of the population opposes Lukashenko, but others say 60% support him. The Belarusian character is temperate and slow to anger, and so far, the majority has kept silent.
So Belarus could remain in Lukashenko's grip for some time to come. Last year, in a referendum widely censured as fraudulent, the President rammed through a constitutional change allowing him unlimited terms in office. By next July, he intends to run for his third five-year term, in effect sealing his presidency for life this in a European country of some 10 million educated, skilled and remarkably law-abiding people. Lukashenko's hold on power is shored up by the Kremlin, where Russia's leaders are as determined as he is to prevent another people's revolution. In an interview last July on tvts, a Moscow-based channel, Lukashenko made his position plain: "I will defend my state and my presidential power with weapons."
Even so, dissidents are agitating for change. Ten parties, ranging from nationalists to communists, agreed in October to nominate physicist Alexander Milinkevich, a former university professor and vice mayor of the city of Grodno, as their single candidate to run against Lukashenko. The objective, Milinkevich tells Time, is simple: "Restoring Belarus to a democracy." But since "free democratic elections are no longer possible in this country," he says, the opposition may try to emulate Ukraine, urging citizens into the streets in a peaceful protest against a rigged vote. The risks of a bloody crackdown are obvious. Nobody wants to die, says Milinkevich, "but living under this dictatorship doesn't leave our children any future either."