A Dark-Horse Victor in Belarus's Balloting
THE West hasn't yet digested the results of the presidential elections in Belarus, a small country situated in the heart of Europe and one of four ex-Soviet republics with nuclear weapons.Skip to next paragraph
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Everybody in Belarus and abroad was nearly certain that the country's first elected president would be Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who had been in power since 1990 and who was supported by the old-guard majority in parliament.
The parliamentarians even drafted a new constitution in a way that gave a ``green light'' to Mr. Kebich and hope to the old ``nomenklatura'' forces that they could hold onto power for at least another five years.
But the socioeconomic situation in Belarus has been deteriorating, especially since the beginning of the year. Compared with the first six months of last year, production has dropped by more than 50 percent. Inflation is galloping with monthly rates of 40 to 50 percent. Unemployment mounts.
Instead of moving toward economic reforms, members of the Kebich government were trying to ``improve'' their own well-being - which led parliament member Alexander Lukashenko to accuse some 70 top government officials of corruption last fall - while creating an economic union with Russia, which they thought would help solve most of Belarus's economic problems.
This scheme didn't work. Belarussians, disillusioned and disenchanted with the policies of the old government and deeply dissatisfied with a drop in the standard of living, voted for Mr. Lukashenko. His election campaign looked like a hurricane: He promised to fire the entire government and send many high-ranking officials to jail for corruption.
Lukashenko's victory surprised Moscow. From the start of the campaign, Russian officials were calling Minsk and asking Kebich, ``How can we help you, Slava?'' Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came to Minsk on July 2 and 3 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Belarus's liberation from the Nazis, to support Kebich. Lukashenko sought a meeting with Chernomyrdin, but all he got was a brief conversation with the Russian prime minister during a wreath-laying ceremony. The Russian leadership refused to believe in the possibility of an outsider coming to power in Belarus - even after the first round of elections, in which Lukashenko received 45 percent of the vote and Kebich received 17 percent.
In a second round on July 10, Lukashenko rolled to an astonishing victory, receiving more than 80 percent of the vote. Kebich got only 14 percent.
``This was a typical case of the rejection of a government's policy in a crisis situation. People were voting more against Kebich than for Lukashenko,'' said Zyanon Paznyak, leader of the Belarussian Popular Front and another presidential candidate, speaking by telephone from Minsk. ``I can predict a continuation of the collapse.''
According to Mr. Paznyak, a new Komosomol (Communist League of Youth) nomenklatura is trying to replace the old communist nomenklatura. He is probably referring to the fact that Lukashenko was leader of a chapter of the Komosomol from 1977 to '78 in Mogilev, a regional center in Belarus, and a secretary of the Communist Party committee of the Lenin collective farm in Mogilev region from 1985 to '87. Since 1987 Lukashenko has been director of the state farm. Real fame came to Lukashenko at the end of 1993, when he was appointed chairman of the parliament's anticorruption commission.
The struggle against corruption was essentially the only card he played during the presidential race, although it was difficult to imagine how he was going to defeat ``corrupt government officials'' who were linked by thousands of threads during the years of Communist rule. Another point in his program was economic and political union with Russia.