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Dictating the future

Belarus does not get many tourists, at least not the conventional sort. I shared my flight over (those in the know fly Lufthansa rather than trust their fate to the national carrier, Belavia) with an Australian man in his fifties. Once we landed, he would be taking a two-hour taxi ride to a stranger, some 20 years his junior, whom he had met on the internet and hoped would become his bride. Then there was the British judo squad, already in training for the 2012 Olympics and en route to a training camp to practise against other teams from across Europe. This is an annual event: the Belarusians are rather good at judo, apparently.

I was one of a small group of journalists visiting at the invitation of the government, which is hoping to attract western tourists. It is a slim hope. Belarus is most famous not for its flax fields or its bear- and boar-filled forests, but for being Europe's last dictatorship. Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, came to power in 1994; his reputation on human rights is poor and foreign journalists who write articles that displease him do not have their visas renewed. But he also knows that if the country is to grow economically, then it must also look to the west, and, as tensions grow with his closest ally, Russia, he has recently started to make cautious overtures towards the EU.

It is in the city of Vitebsk, near the border with Russia and Latvia, that the clearest picture of the new-look Belarus emerges. There are obvious signs of affluence. People are well-dressed, the cars are new and imported, and some big brands are here: MaxMara, for one, and Mothercare (of all things).

Presumably the government would be very happy to see Mothercare flourish. Like many other European countries, Belarus has a falling population. A new poster campaign shows a huge, encouraging image of a local couple with three baby girls on their laps, smiling down from billboards around Vitebsk. Even the most patriotic of Belarusians may have trouble rustling up triplets on demand.

The city's annual week-long arts festival takes place during my trip, and along with the great and the good of Vitebsk, including the minister for culture, Pavel Latushko, I attend the opening of "100 Paintings of Marc Chagall" at the regional local history museum. The paintings turn out to be etchings, but they are wonderful, all the same: surreal, sensual and nostalgic. Chagall, a Jew, was born in Vitebsk, a fact that the city, and indeed the country, has only begun to acknowledge relatively recently. The artist, shunned by the Soviet state and dismissed as a "French artist" - his crimes his religion and the content of his work - is now being fought over as a native son.

In Chagall, Belarus has a gold-plated star. His charming red-brick house, where he spent his early years and whose environs inspired many of his paintings, is a world-class tourist attraction. The local authorities have designated the area in which it stands for redevelopment and restoration -
all it needs is investors. And there, in a nutshell, is Belarus's dilemma: how to combine its autocratic Soviet style with the desire for cultural acknowledgement from the outside world - and the financial rewards that only capitalism can bring.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?