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One Ex-Soviet Republic Acts More Soviet as Election Nears

THE wide streets of Belarus's capital, ominously lined with massive Stalinist architecture, betray no billboards or posters advertising tomorrow's elections to parliament.

Airwaves and newspapers in the former Soviet republic, tightly controlled by hard-line President Alexander Lukashenko, are noticeably bereft of get-out-the-vote commercials and televised debates.

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Behind the bland facade, anxiety is running high among many politicians, who hope that the by-elections will help loosen Mr. Lukashenko's increasingly tight grip on this former Soviet republic of 10 million.

Especially troubling is a threat by the collective farm director-turned-president to impose ''direct presidential rule'' if the woefully underfinanced elections fail to produce a working parliament.

''It's easy to characterize Belarus as the last remaining republic of the Soviet Union,'' said one Western diplomat based in Minsk, the capital. ''But there is still a parliament and court system, and they haven't buckled under yet - although the cards are stacked against them.''

Belarus, wedged between Russia and Poland, was one of the most conservative members of the former Soviet Union, obediently carrying out Kremlin orders. Unlike most of its neighbors, Belarus never actively sought independence.

Belarussians still cling to the hope that another union - either the Commonwealth of Independent States or a new economic union with Russia - will help them out of their economic troubles.

Under Lukashenko's year-old leadership, the country has gone even further to try to capture the past.

In May, Belarussians voted to restore their Soviet-like flag and national symbols, make Russian a second official language, and build closer ties with Moscow.

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They also supported Lukashenko's right to dissolve parliament, giving moral backing to one of his favorite phrases: ''I am the trunk,'' he says. ''The branches [of power] come from me.''

Belarus has been floundering in a virtual legislative vacuum since May, when general elections failed to fill even half of the 260 parliament seats.

The new parliament, lacking a quorum, has been unable to start sitting. The outgoing assembly resumed work until more new legislators could be elected, but it was ignored outright by Lukashenko.

This week, 900 candidates will vie for 141 empty seats under similar, seemingly impossible conditions to those that torpedoed the poll six months ago.

Access to the media is virtually nil, and campaign war chests total just $50 per candidate. Lukashenko has pressed hard to retain a rule requiring 50 percent turnout among the apathetic electorate for the poll to be valid.

''It's coming to authoritarian rule here. Some elements are already in place,'' said Mechislav Grib, the chairman of the outgoing parliament and one of Lukashenko's chief opponents.

''Our hope lies with the new parliament. If it's elected, we can have a constitutional country with three branches of power - not just one.''

Lukashenko is highly suspicious of the West, aligning his foreign policy with Russia in opposing NATO's planned expansion to Eastern Europe.

Belarus's international reputation plummeted from a blank to that of a cold war outpost in September, when border guards shot down a hot air balloon crossing Belarussian territory. The two American pilots on board were killed.

Lukashenko made a bad situation worse by absolving his military of wrongdoing.

Western countries and Belarus's closest neighbors have a vested interest in helping the country stand on its feet. If Belarus is swallowed up by Russia, the argument goes, then Moscow's military prerogatives will expand westward up to Poland.

Most Belarussians feel strong ties with Russia, and only a tiny minority of the population speaks Belarussian. Much of the country's national identity was wiped out during World War II, when a quarter of its population was killed, and all of its cities ruined. The 1986 disaster at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power station dealt another blow, spreading radiation across huge swaths of territory.

The new parliament may help even out the balance of powers in Belarus, but the predicted majority of communists and agrarians will probably do little to resolve the economic disarray.

Belarus had relatively high living standards in Soviet times, but it has slid behind its neighbors in market reforms. The government won a $300 million standby loan from the International Monetary Fund in July to back a strict reform program. But that loan may already be in trouble as Belarus lags behind on crucial conditions.

The World Bank has told the government to forget about credits until it starts privatizing its massive state sector.

Western observers disagree on the state of the economy: It's either spiraling downward or already on the brink of collapse. ''Reports of Belarus's imminent death are overstated. Belarus is on the crossroads of Europe and one way or another will be forced to adapt to the market forces all around it,'' said one Western diplomat.

''The arithmetic is clear, and it is terrifying. Salaries are not being paid, factories are closing, and old people are getting pensions you can't possibly live on,'' said another.

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