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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Belarus, Voters Rush to Polls and Vodka

KVASINICHY, Belarus -- The thoughts of the voters from the Lenin's Path collective farm had nothing to do with democracy or sovereignty as they lined up for Thursday's presidential elections. These 24 wizened farmers, bussed into this village 120 kilometers south of Minsk to vote in Belarus' first democratic elections, had their minds set on the four bottles of vodka shimmering in the village store's window across the way. Seconds after they handed in their ballots, the store's doors flew open and the shoving and shouting began. Four victors soon emerged flashing gold-toothed smiles and clasping their hard-fought prizes; the other 20 went home unhappy. "I want a better life," said one woman. "I want a return to when there was vodka." Election officials in Belarus are calling the country's first presidential vote a success, citing a turnout of 63.3 percent of Belarus' 7.3 million voters as of 5 P.M. Thursday. Just after the announcement was made a rainbow appeared over Minsk, the Belarus capital. "Look, it's God telling us, 'Thanks for the election, now you can go back on living,'" said Vadim Kremenchuk, a Minsk car dealer. Like Kremenchuk, most of those interviewed Thursday seemed to see their vote less as a building block toward Belarussian statehood, than as fulfillment of some divine-ordained civic duty. Preliminary unofficial results will be announced Friday morning but it appeared as though most Belarussians had backed the two candidates -- Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich and Alexander Lukashenko -- who support close integration with Russia. The two candidates won all 24 votes at Kvasinichy, a part of Belarus' countryside of horse-drawn carriages, hideous grey concrete buildings and endless fields of flax. Pro-Kebich officials who had warned of disruptive actions by the country's small nationalist movement, could barely hide their delight at the high, peaceful turnout. "We are just happy that people are voting," said Nikolai Yurtik, mayor of Soligorsk, a mining town of 100,000, 150 kilometers south of Minsk. The city's voters appeared split among Kebich, Lukashenko and the nationalist candidates Zenon Poznyak and Stanislav Shushkevich. But Soligorsk itself is one of the reasons most Belarussians support a reunion with Russia. It is home to one of the country's few exportable natural resources -- a vein of calcium that provided nearly half of Belarus' 1993 hard-currency export income of $732 million. Oil, metal for the tractor factory, parts for computers all come from elsewhere, mainly Russia. "We don't have any resources, we've had a long tradition of being part of Russia," said Irina, a young cardiologist who voted for Kebich. The nationalists say that Belarus' dire economic straits are partly the fault of the Kebich government's unwillingness to reform the Soviet-era economy. But most ordinary voters see the last three years of Belarus' sovereignty as the cause of the country's problems. "They think independence drags us down," said Alexander Mikhailchuk, deputy editor of the liberal Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta. "They blame sovereignty for inflation, the lack of sausage, the lack of vodka." Although 80 percent of the population is ethnically Belarussian, many people speak only Russian. This is seen as a tragedy by nationalists such as Maria Matyukevich, a schoolteacher. "If we allow Moscow to dictate to us, to dominate our culture, we will lose everything we have," she said.