Bright light on the Dniepe

Little-known and often misreported, Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko is a well-kept secret — a boo

A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street.

Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, "What's wrong with you?"

“I had a terrible nightmare," she says. "I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean. I also dreamed that you had a job, that we could afford to pay our gas and electricity bills."

“How is that a nightmare?" asks her husband.

The woman shakes her head. "I thought the communists were back in power."

This Bulgarian joke, as told by Maria Todorova in the Guardian and now doing the rounds across eastern Europe, doesn't work here in Minsk. This is a capital city where the streets are safe and clean, where ordinary people can still afford to buy medicine and basic foodstuffs and where the unemployment rate is less than 1 per cent. It's the side of Belarus you won't read much about. After last month's presidential elections - in which Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected to serve a fourth term with almost 80 per cent of the vote - the arrest of opposition candidates and hundreds of their supporters led to the reappearance of the old "last dictatorship in Europe" headlines. But shocking as the scenes of police beating protesters were, it would be a mistake to equate Belarus with Burma, or Lukashenko with Joseph Stalin.

Lukashenko's rule is unquestionably authoritarian, as he has conceded, but his policies, which combine aspects of the old communist system - social security and full employment - with a mixed economy and greater personal freedoms than existed in the days of the Soviet Union, have proved hugely popular with the majority of ordinary Belarusians, as his election results testify.

While other former Soviet republics rushed to embrace capitalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall, privatising their state-owned enterprises and removing subsidies to industry and agriculture, Belarus kept the old collectivist flame alive. My guidebook describes it as a country "so unspoilt by the trappings of western materialism that it's very easy to feel a sense of having slipped into another time and dimension". Yet even here - a country where roughly 80 per cent of the economy is nationalised and statues of Lenin still line the streets - times are changing. Pressure from the IMF and Russia and a desire to court the European Union, among other reasons, have led Belarus to embark on a major privatisation programme of its own. Ninety per cent of state-owned businesses have been earmarked for sale. Does the move mark the de facto end of Europe's last socialist planned economy?

During a press conference at Belarus's wonderfully retro ministry of economy, where the BBC could quite happily have filmed the Life on Mars series, Nikolai Snopkov, the minister in charge of the department, denies that his country is changing course. "All the successful economic systems in the world are mixed systems. We are committed to combining the principle of the free market with social justice. The economy is not for itself: it has a human purpose." Asked if Belarus will roll back the state, he answers with a resounding "nyet".

Ukrainian rhapsody

Afterwards, we are taken to see one of the country's industrial gems - the enormous Belarusian Autoworks (BelAZ) factory in Zhodino. BelAZ, which launched in 1948, employs 12,000 people, and is the biggest producer of mining dump trucks in the world.

Our guide Natalia proudly escorts us round the factory museum, with its scale models of BelAZ vehicles. There is a photograph of a beaming Hugo Chávez, a strong ally of Luka­shenko (he recently said that Venezuela would supply Belarus with oil for the next 200 years), driving a BelAZ truck. This is more than just a company - it's an extended family. There is a sanatorium for the workers, two sports and fitness centres, and a cultural centre where a theatre collective plays. Such enterprises used to be common in eastern Europe before 1989 - but economic reform put a stop to all that.

On our return to Minsk, we find the bars and cafés full of well-dressed young people. Aggression and public displays of drunkenness are refreshingly absent from the streets. Outside the state opera (cheapest tickets US$2), we meet an Irish restaurant owner who has emigrated to Belarus. "This is the place," he says. "The economy is booming and there's a real vibe. My son and I went to Ukraine recently and everyone was saying to us: 'Can we have the Belarus president in charge here for a year?'"

It's not difficult to see why. Unlike Ukraine and Russia, Belarus's economy is not dominated by billionaire oligarchs. There is no underclass: according to UN figures, Belarus has one of the lowest levels of social inequality in the world. Lukashenko wins elections not through fear, but because he has delivered social protection and rising standards of living. Growth now stands at 7 per cent.

The danger, some feel, is that a move towards a more market-oriented economy will destroy these achievements, and leave Belarusians sharing the same bitter-sweet jokes as their fellow eastern Europeans.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.