Communists Take Reins In Belarus, Opening Way For Closer Ties to Russia

THE Belarus parliament ousted its liberal, pro-reform chairman on Wednesday, allowing the Communist Party to assume full control over the former Soviet republic.

Parliament chairman and head of state Stanislav Shushkevich was overwhelmingly dismissed in a vote of no confidence by 209 to 36 votes. The parliament will meet today to elect its new chairman, likely from the Belarus Communist Party.

The shift in Belarus, in concert with the consolidation of a conservative Russian government under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, opens up a virtual reunification of the two former Soviet republics. Mr. Shushkevich had strongly opposed close alignment with Moscow, including signing a security pact, arguing that Belarus had to maintain its independence through neutrality.

Shushkevich, a former physicist and son of a famous Belarussian writer, was one of the few figures in Belarussian politics without a Communist Party background. He was almost a lone voice for carrying out free-market reforms in Belarus, where little has been done to dismantle the old socialist economy. He was frequently at odds with Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who was reaffirmed in his post on Wednesday.

Mr. Chernomyrdin plans to visit Belarus early in February to sign documents that will create a monetary union between the two states, effectively merging their economies, the Interfax news agency reported yesterday. Russian reformers who have recently left the government have criticized such plans, saying they will retard reforms and trigger new inflation.

Former Russian Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar assailed the monetary union as ``a readiness to exchange the prosperity of our citizens for the expansion of zones of imperial influence,'' he told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

The emphasis on expansion of the Russian role in the former Soviet Union has become a key theme of President Boris Yeltsin and his liberal foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who remains in the new Russian government.

In a controversial speech to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr. Kozyrev called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which groups all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic nations, a ``zone of vital interest to Russia.'' To that end, Russia should maintain a military presence in the CIS, he argued. Complete withdrawal would be ``an approach almost as extreme ... as the idea of sending tanks into some of these republics,'' Kozyrev reportedly said.

And on Feb. 6, Mr. Yeltsin will further this policy when he visits Georgia to sign a package of documents, including a ``friendship'' treaty. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev will also go to sign a treaty formalizing the status of Russian troops in Georgia.

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