Clinton Visit Is `Reward' for Belarus

EMBATTLED Belarus leader Stanislav Shushkevich may have trouble convincing President Clinton that his country is on the path of economic reform when the American president arrives in Minsk tomorrow.

The dingy, colorless capital has little of the bustle and commerce that distinguishes Moscow. Reformer Shushkevich, who has already faced one ouster attempt, is almost alone in the conservative parliament that has stubbornly resisted implementing market reforms. And most Belarussians have none of the sovereign, nationalist zeal of their Baltic neighbors.

A brief visit

President Clinton's six-hour visit is intended to be a reward to the former Soviet republic for relinquishing the nuclear weapons it inherited, along with Ukraine and Kazakhstan, from the Soviet Union. He also wanted the brief stopover to send a signal to Ukraine that it will not be forgotten if it follows Belarus's lead.

But by visiting Minsk, Clinton is also tacitly endorsing the Soviet-style outpost that has subordinated most of its economic and military policies to Russia.

``I am not satisfied with the pace economic reforms are being implemented in Belarus. But you can't go against the will of the people in any democratic country. People cannot be driven into western-style democracy by sticks and bullets,'' Mr. Shushkevich said in an interview with the Monitor last week.

``I hope the President understands that our hardships, our difficulties, and the mentality of our citizens deformed by 75 years of Soviet power cannot be cured at one stroke,'' added Shushkevich, who was recently hospitalized after he collapsed during a legislative session where he was accused of abuse of power.

Belarus, the fifth most populous former Soviet republic, was the industrial powerhouse of the western Soviet Union before its collapse. But current indicators show a rapid decline in the country, whose capital was chosen to be the seat of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991.

Industrial production fell by 12 percent last year, no full-scale privatization program has yet been adopted, and prices have been liberalized only gradually. Inflation reached 40 percent in August, and heavy agricultural subsidies are planned for 1994.

Also, the country of 10 million is still suffering the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when 70 percent of the fallout landed in Belarus. And opinion polls conducted in December revealed that 73 percent of Belarussians believe their lives worsened in the past year.

What is more telling is that many leaders, including Shushkevich, are still flirting with the idea of merging their monetary system with Russia. The proposal, which would make the Russian ruble the only legal tender in both republics, was discussed Wednesday at a Moscow meeting between Shushkevich and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But Shushkevich said it will be settled only when Belarus receives assurances that Russia will sell it fuel and energy for domestic prices.

``The ruble zone is economic blackmail,'' said Zenon Pozniak, head of the opposition Popular Front, virtually the only nationalist movement in the country and a reluctant supporter of Shushkevich. ``Following the creation of the Commonwealth, Russia's policies have been geared toward forming a new empire using economic pressure.'' Mr. Pozniak said in an interview. ``No formal union with Russia is possible. Russia is an empire and will never be a democratic state.''

Weak local currency

Belarus currently uses an unstable interim currency called the ``zaichik,'' or rabbit, which has rapidly lost value since it was introduced in 1992.

Western observers would prefer a permanent Belarussian currency and are steadfastly against the proposed monetary union, which they say will impede Belarus from ever becoming a truly independent state.

``We are in favor of countries having their own currencies. If you reenter the ruble zone, you're making your policies dependent on Russia,'' says Willem C. Middelkoop, the International Monetary Fund representative in Minsk.

In July, the IMF approved a $98 million credit, the first portion of $193 million for unspecified use. The World Bank is also negotiating a $120 million rehabilitation loan. But both lending organizations are still waiting to see signs that Belarus is taking the market path.

Indeed, Shushkevich has been at constant loggerheads with conservative Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, one of the leading proponents of forging a military union with Russia, and other lawmakers elected before the Soviet collapse.

A stubborn parliament

Western observers say it will be embarrassing for Belarus if it does not hold new elections soon. But the parliament, which intends to stay in office until its term expires in 1995, can be forced to call them only if it amends its Soviet-era constitution, which would require a two-thirds majority and is therefore unlikely.

``Our constitution does not envisage the early dissolution of the parliament, but we are not going to shoot at it with big guns,'' Shushkevich said, referring to the bloody October assault against Moscow's White House.

In October, 1992, the Belarussian Popular Front collected enough signatures to legally force a nationwide referendum on confidence in the parliament. But the legislature rejected the referendum.

Mr. Kebich promised US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who visied Minsk on Oct. 26, that he would hold new elections.

In July 1993 a no-confidence motion against Shushkevich won an overwhelming majority in parliament - but without a quorum - and observers believe there could be attempts to topple him again.

The US is understandably, concerned more with how Belarus fulfills its commitments to get rid of its nukes, although Clinton will try to push reforms during his visit.

When Belarus ratified Start-1 and joined the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty last year, it received over $75 million to cover disarmament costs from Washington.

Belarussian authorities have already started shipping some of its 81 nuclear missiles to Russia for dismantling, but now lawmakers are asking for half of the $400 million the US Congress has earmarked to help the former Soviet republics disarm.

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