Belarus: a look inside Europe's 'last dictatorship'
Large banners, written in Chinese characters, cordon off a zone on the outskirts of Minsk. An entire Chinese neighbourhood is under construction, with shops and towering residences soon to emerge from the vast fields of mud.
It is a strange apparition for a country where immigrants and tourists are few and far between.
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"A Chinatown in Minsk?" locals ask incredulously, in a country where even mainstream society - let alone Minsk-based opposition activists - is becoming increasingly estranged from its autocratic leadership.
Belarus still carries the burden of the terrible events of World War II and Soviet rule which took place here in the 20th century.
But over the past 18 years, President Alexander Lukashenko has managed to position his domain as a strategic buffer between the competing interests of the EU-US axis and Russia.
Financial greed and fear of losing power are the two main pillars of his foreign policy.
From the west, the EU looks over the head of Belarus and sees its huge and dangerous neighbour, Russia. From the east, Belarus looks at the Union and sees hostile EU institutions, but also Germany and the UK, who criticise the regime, but allow lucrative commercial ties to flourish.
In 2005, the then US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, coined the phrase: "The last dictatorship in Europe." In 2008, the US embassy in Warsaw sent a secret cable to Washington which outlined Poland's vision. "Polish analysts tell us having a pro-Western BUFFER [sic] zone in Ukraine and Belarus would keep Poland off the front line with an increasingly assertive Russia," it said.
While foreign ministers and generals talk geopolitics, ordinary Belarusians live in a world of constant reminders of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Stalinist pogroms and Nazi persecution, which define their country's identity.
Around 70 percent of all the radiation blown into the air from the 1986 nuclear meltdown settled in southern Belarus.
On Victory Square in Minsk, armed soldiers guard a 40-metre-tall obelisk rendering homage to Soviet regiments who liberated the country from the Germans in 1944. A large 'eternal flame' - fed by below-market-price Russian gas - burns in their memory, surrounded by luxury apartments which were built by German prisoners of war.
Some 700 villages dotted around Belarus are in themselves monuments to World War II - all were destroyed along with their inhabitants whom the Nazis rounded up in small barns before setting them on fire.
Few survived to tell the tale. But one of Belarus' most celebrated authors, the late Vasiliy Vladimirovich Bykov, is a man whose novels and short stories describe in detail the men who fought in the war.
Bykov works also criticise the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. With the advent of Lukashenko, he saw a similar tendency sweeping across the country before he died in 2003. In a sign of the President's cult of personality, few Belarusians know their prime minister's name. Fewer still can name his deputy. All, however, know the name of Alexander Lukashenko.
Great Kingdom of Lithuania
Belarus is landlocked, with enormous, pristine forests and some 11,000 lakes running across a relatively flat landscape. Surrounded by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, its older history is also written on the landscape, but is slowly being erased.
In the west near Lithuania, the crumbling vestiges of the 14th century Krevo Castle are in total ruin. The former capital of the Great Kingdom of Lithuania is now the backyard of a small wooden house tended by an old lady. In the poorer eastern half of the country, old castles and monuments are all but gone. The sites are in neglect, while new hotels and amusement parks are given priority.
"A lot of historical buildings are forgotten and replaced by hotels," Darya, a Belarus student of culture and heritage at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, told EUobserver.
Only a minority of the 10-million-or-so inhabitants of the country speak Belarusian. Russian is by far the dominant tongue. It is spoken by government officials. It is also the language in schools.
Oleg Trusov, chairman of the Francisak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society said the Belarusian language is a victim of realpolitik. "The compensation for cheap Russian oil in Belarus is the Russian language. If Belarus becomes the official language, Russian oil and gas will be priced to EU levels," he told this reporter in Minsk in November.
Belarus has so far evaded the machinations of policy experts in EU capitals.
In 2006, the European Commission published a non-paper which outlined in four pages how to improve political relations, deepen economic ties and increase quality of life for average people. In 2010, Germany and Poland dangled promises of billions of dollars in aid in return for reform.
Today, the economic ties are better than ever, but quality of life and political relations are on a downward spiral.
On the political side, the spiral began after presidential elections in December 2010. Lukashenko was voted in for a fourth term amid widespread allegations of fraud (the Vienna-based democracy watchdog, the OSCE, is yet to recognise his rule as legitimate).
Tens of thousands of Belarusians demonstrated against him on 19 December 2010 in one of the biggest opposition rallies of his career. KGB agents and riot police descended en masse, arresting around 600 people and beating protesters indiscriminately.
The next morning, one resident described a gruesome scene of large patches of red in sharp contrast with white snow.
In the days that followed, a number of presidential candidates and their staff were thrown into jail.
One of the candidates, Uladzimir Niakliayeu, a poet and a former chair of the country's writer's union, almost died of head trauma when riot police attacked him on the night of the post-election protests. In his clandestine office in Minsk, he told this reporter in November that he now longs to plunge himself in the depths of the Oceans.
"I can stay under water a long time. When I'm there I imagine how small and ethereal the world is, compared to the vastness of life in the Ocean. Instead of discovering the secrets of the Ocean world, we destroy our own," he said.