Retro-Soviet-Style Belarus President Shores Up Power, Smiles at Moscow

By , Staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor

If Russia ever begins to expand its reach again, Belarus would be the first of the former Soviet countries to rejoin. Although it was one of the more prosperous Soviet republics, it has had more trouble than most in adapting to independence.

While Russia seems to be heading away from its Soviet past, Belarus is increasingly heading back in that direction.

Popular and authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is grasping for ever tighter control of the country. He has united against him nearly every political faction. The result is a confrontation between Mr. Lukashenko and the Belarussian parliament and Cabinet ministries. This standoff could end up widening his already expansive presidential powers. But some say it could also end up weakening his political strength.

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This week alone, four Cabinet ministers have resigned, including the economics minister. Two leading opposition politicians, including the most popular potential president except Lukashenko himself, applied for political asylum in the United States on Tuesday to escape from what they said was Lukashenko's "authoritarian regime."

A week ago, seven political parties representing 70 percent of the seats in parliament signed a declaration denouncing Lukashenko's proposals for changing the Belarussian Constitution. Now there is talk in the chamber of impeachment.

Lukashenko has responded publicly that he will dismiss any parliament that tries to impeach him. He will not only serve out his current term, but the next two as well, he says. The Constitution allows only two consecutive terms, but Lukashenko has not been fussy about such fine points.

His main popular gambit so far is promoting reunification with Russia - an idea that also appeals to Russian national pride, if not to those concerned about the Russian national budget. He signed an agreement this spring with Russian president Boris Yeltsin for stronger integration between the two nations. Lukashenko bills it as a step toward reunion.

Reuniting with Russia won overwhelming popular support in past referendums, but the idea is now drawing thousands of pro-independence agitators as well.

Despite this opposition, and the across-the-board opposition he is meeting in parliament, Lukashenko is by far the most popular politician in Belarus. "Any time he wants, he can overcome the opposition by going to the voters," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

So Lukashenko is likely to win his September referendum. In it, he proposes to change the constitution to create a two-chamber parliament instead of the current one, and to lengthen the presidential term to seven years, among other things designed to enhance the president's powers.

THE source of much of the conflict is the growing crisis in the Belarussian economy. Belarus has been one of the most conservative post-Soviet countries in moving away from socialism. It has one of the worst performing economies, too. Labor strikes predicted for the fall have already started this summer, and Lukashenko has ordered that no one may participate in political rallies or demonstrations until the harvest is in.

"The economy is the main problem for Lukashenko," says Pavel Sheremetev, editor of Belarussian Business Gazette, the leading opposition newspaper until Lukashenko pulled its license a month ago. "If in the political sphere he is the leader challenged by no one, in the economic sphere he may lose power."

In addition, Lukashenko is popular because he has the image of a consolidator of all elements of Belarussian society, says Mr. Markov. However, he has consolidated his opposition against him, and that can only hurt his image.

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