Wrong Turn for Belarus

Belarus is probably best known as the homeland of Olympic superstars Olga Korbut and Vitaly Scherbo. That may soon change: This Kansas-sized nation of 10.4 million people, squeezed in between Russia and Poland, is in the midst of political and economic crisis.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm director, doesn't hide the fact that he'd like to return to old days. In fact, he brags about voting against the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr. Lukashenko wants to recreate the Soviet system in one ex-republic. He's attacked the Belarussian language and reinstituted mandatory Russian in state schools. He's banned the Belarussian flag and reverted to the old Byelorussian SSR banner. He's shut down the only independent radio station and frozen the accounts of independent newspapers. He's suppressed dissent. And he and parliament are locked in a bitter battle of referendums set for November.

Lukashenko has disastrously rolled back Belarus's paltry economic reforms and tried to return to a central-planning system. He signed an "integration" treaty with Russia last spring, but Moscow has no wish to absorb the republic and its economic problems. Without Soviet orders to fulfill, the country has few customers. So the economy is in a tailspin; it declined 22 percent last year alone. Russian meddling hasn't helped.

Belarus will only go downhill until a market economy and democracy are adopted. Time is running out.

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