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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

If Lukashenko Wins, They Will Leave

MINSK, Belarus -- Sergei Serebryakov, a 24-year-old IT specialist, knows exactly what he will do if President Alexander Lukashenko loses the election Sunday. "I'll buy myself a new car," he says, smiling shyly. "I will have nothing better to do with my savings."

But chances are that Lukashenko will win and Serebryakov's savings will be spent on what he was accumulating the money for in the first place. "If he wins, I leave," he shrugs. "No reason to stay."

Shy and soft-spoken, Serebryakov is part of a vast army of young people who are leaving Belarus in search of a better life elsewhere, making the small, impoverished and tightly ruled country an even more desolate place.

There are few statistics available, but independent experts have estimated their numbers in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. And their absence here is palpable.

"OK, let's see," Serebryakov says, concentrating for a while before starting his long list of friends living abroad. "My ex-girlfriend left for the States in 1994, then a friend emigrated to New York, after that several people from my generation at the university left, and my fiancee also lives abroad now."

Then one day he received an e-mail from his best friend. "It went something like: ?Sergei, I sold my apartment and moved to Moscow,'" he recalls. "That's it. He also doesn't live here anymore."

In Minsk, almost everybody of Serebryakov's generation has a similar story to tell -- long lists of friends living abroad, their cumbersome new addresses and 10-digit telephone numbers filling the address books of those who stayed.

Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

Belarussian opposition activists holding up portraits of disappeared people during a protest in Minsk on Tuesday.

Those who are leaving are as a rule young and well-educated, many of them IT specialists and former students of two technical universities in Minsk. But it is not just a big-city brain drain.

On Friday evenings, in the provincial town of Bobruisk, some 140 kilometers south of Minsk, people gather on the main square. They chat and take swigs from beer or vodka bottles. There are not many other places to go.

Lena Pashkova, a cheery 24-year-old seamstress at the local Slavyanka factory, laughs at the question of whether people she knows are leaving. "Of course everybody is leaving," she says and starts reciting her own "friends-abroad list."

"I have one friend in England, another in Denmark and one more in the United States," she says. "They all left in the past few years."

"The ones who can, who have some money or higher education, they all leave," says her friend Anya Khoren, 23. "They look for better living conditions mostly, but many also want a country where it's easier to breathe. And it's not just the young ones." She has an aunt in Austria and another who left recently for Israel. "She phoned not so long ago and said she was such a fool not to have left earlier."

Svetlana Alexiyevich, one of the best-known contemporary Belarussian writers, says young people leave because they feel they have no chance for personal or professional development.

Alexiyevich, who travels in and out of the country in semi-exile, has a 20-year-old daughter studying pedagogy in Minsk. "In any other country she would have a whole range of opportunities open to her after her studies. Here I'm afraid she will end up being a teacher and earning $30 a month."

But she sees the emigration mostly as a consequence of a deeper, generational split between children, unsatisfied with their lives in a stagnant authoritarian society, and their parents, grateful to a president for the pauperized stability.

"The parents are afraid of having to live in a society where jobs are not guaranteed, where they would be constantly asked to improve their skills, to adjust to the changing conditions," she says. "So on Sunday they will vote for the man who is making their children leave. That is the tragedy of our country."

Andrei Vardomatsky, the head of the independent sociological research center NOVAK, confirms that the political divide in Belarus is along generational lines. "In the older generation Lukashenko enjoys 70 percent support. In younger generations, he is opposed by 70 percent."

Although Belarus' population is statistically not much older than that of its East European neighbors, there is almost no trace of a youth culture on the streets of its cities. In Bobruisk, which has 250,000 inhabitants, there is one discotheque and no Western-type clubs.

In Minsk it's better, but not much -- even on weekends the city looks deserted after 11 p.m. In one of Minsk's two Internet cafes, young boys play computer games. The older ones surf the web for instructions on how to emigrate to the West or at least how to find a spouse there. The only Belarussian rock festival is held once a year -- in neighboring Poland.

Western diplomats in Minsk say the number of emigrants is not known because most of them enter other countries illegally.

But even the official statistics kept by the Belarussian Labor Ministry are telling. The number of people leaving legally each year tripled from 1,314 in 1994 to 4,886 last year, said the head of the emigration department, Anatoly Lemeshev. "Of course, the illegal emigration is much higher than this," Lemeshev said. "But at least we get a feel for the trend, and it's growing."

But for some, leaving is not the first option, and they start the path to emigration by getting involved in opposition politics.

"You have to change the country you live in," says Vadim Shmygov, 19, a member of the youth branch of the opposition Unified Civic Party. He has spent the long summer days designing stickers ridiculing Lukashenko or organizing protest actions in the regions.

He prepared for his exams at night, as his red eyes bear witness to. Now, he says, his university professors have threatened to fail him for the year if he doesn't show up for the exams. "I don't know what to do -- we have an action planned for that day," Shmygov says.

In February, another youth organization was formed in the Belovezhskaya forest. Named Zubr, after the forest's best known inhabitant -- the bison -- the organization was modeled after and helped by the Serbian student movement Otpor, which helped remove Slobodan Milosevic.

Zubr is a semi-clandestine organization, whose members go around in black shirts with a picture of a bison and the slogan "Time for Change," and pop up unexpectedly in different parts of the country staging performances that ridicule the president.

In April, Zubr organized a performance in Minsk's main park, where people in Lukashenko masks ran around chased by Zubr activists dressed as psychiatrists in search of their "patient." The president answered by issuing a decree forbidding wearing masks in public, and giving police a free hand to harass anyone wearing a Zubr T-shirt.

Andrei Petrov -- a 23-year-old Zubr with a demeanor more suited to a professional freedom-fighter than a student -- says he was expelled from the university just 48 hours before he was supposed to receive his diploma. Still, he is not planning to leave the country.

"You should make order in your own home, not search for shelter in other people's house," he says somewhat dogmatically. "Although I understand the people who chose to leave: They do it out of desperation. But we have found the strength to fight."

Zubr activists say their members who were expelled from university have received offers to continue their studies in Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic or Poland. "Last month we were offered 15 places at a Prague university," Petrov says. "We found only eight people willing to go."

Other young Belarussians have managed to find their place in the country. "Belarus is a fine place and everyone can find professional and personal fulfillment here," says Vladimir Kashtelyan, the secretary of the Belarussian Union of Patriotic Youth, a pro-Lukashenko organization.

Its main task is to counterbalance the opposition youth groups, mostly by putting their own stickers over Zubr's and painting over anti-Lukashenko graffiti. The walls of apartment blocks in Minsk suburbs last week showed the battle was in full swing.

"Sure people are leaving: for money, better salaries. But that shouldn't make one jump to the conclusion that Belarus is a bad country," Kashtelyan says.

But Serebryakov has made up his mind: "I am packed, my passport is ready. And don't get me wrong, it's not that I want to leave, but I simply cannot afford to stay in this bog any longer."