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A Despot Is On The Loose In Belarus...And He's Cozying Up To Moscow (Int'l Edition)

International -- Spotlight on Belarus


`My fists are itchy," said 34-year-old Mikhail Shaumenko, one of 10,000 protesters agitating for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko's impeachment at an opposition rally in Minsk on Oct. 19. He was a good deal more belligerent than most of his compatriots: Snipers atop the National Opera and 20,000 troops in riot gear kept the crowd in check and most of the populace at home. Lukashenko, meanwhile, was everywhere. All TV channels broadcast his speech before an ad hoc, 6,000-strong Congress of Belarussian Peoples, which rubber-stamped a constitutional referendum to be held on Nov. 24 that would grant him near dictatorial powers.

Since Lukashenko won Belarus' first presidential elections in 1994, the flamboyant, 41-year-old former collective-farm head has taken his country back to the past in a hurry--and made Belarus a source of alarm to the West. While neighboring Russia has shrunk its security apparatus, Lukashenko has been turning this Central European nation of 10 million into a police state. He's also refusing to decommission his nuclear weapons.

Lukashenko's affection for the bad old days begins with his distaste for democratic rights. Opposition papers and independent radio stations are being harassed and shut down. Outspoken legislators have been jailed and beaten up, and some political opponents have fled the country.

The only force standing between Lukashenko and absolute power is the contentious Parliament, or Supreme Soviet. His proposed constitution calls for a new, handpicked upper house with veto powers over Parliament. It also extends his term from 1999 to 2001. But the Supreme Soviet has engineered a standoff by proposing a constitution of its own that does away with the presidency and by demanding that its version also be voted on in the Nov. 24 referendum. Pavel Sheremet, Minsk bureau chief of Russian Public Television, expects Lukashenko to disband Parliament soon. "Force is his only way out," he says.

Then there's the little matter of the nukes. While Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the two other former Soviet republics with nuclear bases, have handed over their missiles to Russia for dismantling, Lukashenko is holding on to Belarus' 18 single-warhead SS-25 missiles--controlled for now by Russian officers--as "protection" against NATO.

SPOTLESS STREETS. Lukashenko's economic policies are equally backward-looking. He nationalized the country's six biggest private banks by decree last May. He has halted privatization, leaving a mere 10% of Belarus' economy in private hands, compared with 75% in Russia. True, the streets of Minsk are spotless, crime is low, and prices of basic foods are subsidized as in the Soviet days. But gross domestic product fell 10% in 1995 and may drop an additional 5% in 1996.

His core rural constituency might desert him if the slump continues, so he's pushing the referendum while there's still food on the shelves. If he succeeds, "Belarus will become a totalitarian state," says the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Valeryi Tsikhinya. So the West could soon face its worst nightmare: a demagogic, anti-Western leader on NATO's borders--armed with nukes.

Minsk opposition leaders are increasingly looking to Moscow, hoping that the Kremlin will give Lukashenko a slap on the wrist. The autocratic Belarus President is positively deferential when he comes calling in Russia. He has denounced the December, 1991, accord dissolving the Soviet Union as a "scrap of useless paper" and calls for the reintegration of the two countries. An agreement signed on Apr. 2 establishing a free-trade zone is expected to be followed up by a common currency and monetary system at the end of 1997.

Lukashenko, who backed the Communists in Russia's recent elections, doesn't lack detractors in the Kremlin. President Boris Yeltsin's powerful, pro-reform chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, has made overtures to the Belarussian opposition. But Yeltsin is hedging his bets. Despite assurances this spring that he would "teach democracy" to his younger colleague, the ailing President has largely kept his counsel since then. Moscow, of course, is keen to expand its influence in neighboring nations, so it's hesitant to fray relations. But Yeltsin's passivity may be sending Lukashenko the wrong signals. After all, Yeltsin himself, back in 1993, smashed a rebellious Parliament that was getting in his way.EDITED BY HARRY MAURER By Vijai Maheshwari in MinskReturn to top

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