Populist Wins Big In Belarus Poll, Vows To Restore USSR

A FIREBRAND populist who claims he has enough evidence to jail the current Belarussian leadership for bribe-taking scored a surprise victory in the first round of presidential elections in Belarus, according to preliminary results.

Alexander Lukashenko, chairman of parliament's anticorruption committee, won 45.1 percent of Thursday's vote but fell shy of the 50 percent majority needed to win. In runoff polls planned for early July, he will face Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, who beat four other candidates to finish second with 17.4 percent.

A mustachioed state farm director, Mr. Lukashenko is known as the ``Belarussian Zhirinovsky'' in reference to the Russian ultranationist, not for his nationalist views but his extreme populist tactics. His promises to restore the USSR, cut prices, and root out corrupt officials appealed primarily to blue-collar voters in this nation of 10.2 million, many of whom have become poverty-stricken after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Belarus was the industrial powerhouse of the western Soviet Union. But industrial production fell 12 percent last year and no large-scale privatization has occurred. Inflation reached almost 50 percent last month; agriculture survives from heavy subsidies.

The Soviet-style nation has introduced fewer reforms than either neighboring Ukraine or Russia, and has already subordinated many economic and military policies to its more powerful eastern neighbor. Rapid economic decline has been evident ever since reformist parliamentary chairman Stanislav Shushkevich, who finished fourth in the polls, was ousted earlier this year.

Both Lukashenko and Mr. Kebich see increased ties with their Slavic brethren in Russia as a way to save Belarus. But although Lukashenko says he wields more influence in Moscow than his rival, Kebich is Russia's favorite. An advocate of only gradual market reforms, he is the architect of an agreement to rejoin the ruble currency zone and put all of Belarus's economic policies completely under Russia's control.

Some Russian politicians, such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, believe the election of such a pro-Russian figure may signal an important step toward the reintegration of Belarus with Russia. But free-market reformers such as former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar oppose Russia paying a high cost in renewed subsidies to Belarus. They also are concerned that pro-Russian forces are the most conservative - primarily Communists who oppose the economic reforms already under way in Russia.

``We ourselves don't know what we want when we talk about independence,'' Lukashenko said Saturday in the capital, Minsk. ``Independence has given nothing to Belarus.''

Lukashenko captured big audiences during his fiery campaign with promises to sack government officials immediately after taking office. He claims that he has collected enough files to jail some 70 high politicians for bribe-taking, including Kebich.

Lukashenko's election is not yet a fait accompli. The two defeated arch-conservative candidates, Alexander Dubko and Vasily Novikov, will probably throw their weight behind Kebich. And liberal reformer Shushkevich, who garnered only 10 percent of the vote, and nationalist Popular Front leader Zenon Pozniak, who did slightly better with 13 percent, have urged supporters to abstain from the second round of voting to invalidate it for not reaching the required 50 percent turnout rate. Participation was high in the first round, with 79 percent of the 7.3 million eligible voters casting ballots. ``The ruble zone with Russia is economic blackmail,'' Mr. Pozniak said in a Monitor interview earlier this year. ``No formal union with Russia is possible. Russia is an empire and will never be a democratic state.''

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