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Belarussian President Grabs for More Power

Europe: Alexander G. Lukashenko is on a collision course with lawmakers. His call to amend the constitution prompts the first serious resistance to his rule.

September 15, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINSK, Belarus — As an ambitious first-term legislator in 1994, Alexander G. Lukashenko helped write a constitution giving this former Soviet republic a presidency with what he called "the powers of a czar."

Elected to the job a few months later, Lukashenko has wielded those powers to jail opposition leaders, muzzle the media, depose elected mayors, reverse the country's modest free-market reforms and sow the seeds for a budding autocracy in the middle of Europe.

Now the former collective farm boss, who once said Belarus could use a leader like Adolf Hitler, insists he needs even more power to cope with a severe economic slump. But his call for a popular vote to amend the constitution has stirred the first serious resistance to his rule.

The conflict sharpened this month when Lukashenko, in a rare appearance in parliament, threatened to disband that once-pliant body unless it approved his referendum ballot. After an acrimonious exchange, the lawmakers added a proposal to eliminate his job and have vowed to impeach him if he moves against them.

"We are moving slowly but steadily toward a confrontation, possibly a violent one," said Vasil Bykov, the country's leading novelist. "The outcome will tell us what kind of country we will be. In a way, we are just starting our history."

It is a struggle watched closely in the rest of Central Europe, where Belarus' stagnation in Soviet ways and its recent moves to reunite with Russia are viewed as obstacles to regional stability.

Over the objection of his critics at home, Lukashenko has given Russia command over troops guarding Belarus' borders with Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, and he has joined Moscow in warning of conflict if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expands eastward to include those countries. Belarus' neighbors are also unnerved by arms trafficking and other smuggling they suspect the government encourages.

"A country in Europe that doesn't want to be part of Europe is a destabilizing force," said a senior European diplomat in Minsk, the capital. "That's what we have here under the current leader."

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Locked in the Russian and Soviet empires for much of the past three centuries, Belarus gained independence reluctantly when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Nostalgia for the more prosperous Soviet era swept Lukashenko into office by a landslide after he pledged economic reform and closer ties with Russia.

But reformers were quickly squeezed out of government and reforms stalled, leaving more than 90% of the economy still in state hands. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have stopped lending to Belarus.

Turning to Moscow, Lukashenko signed a pact in April to "unify" his economy with Russia's but got little payoff; Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly and Belarus' main energy supplier, refuses to forgive Belarus' debt. Lukashenko appears to have irritated his benefactors by covertly backing Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist candidate who lost the Russian presidential runoff in July.

More and more, Lukashenko resorts to the Soviet methods of his collective farm days. After the economy shrunk 10% last year, he set production quotas on tractors, television sets, petrochemicals and wood products, only to amass $1 billion worth of goods with no market.

In May, he issued a decree that eases government takeovers of private banks. Over the past two years, he has extended direct presidential control over at least half of the economy--including monopolies on arms exports and sales of vodka, cigarettes, computers and soft drinks. Lawmakers say the monopolies, whose budgets are secret, have enriched presidential aides who run them.

"Lukashenko has not overcome the limitations of his Communist past," said Christopher Willoughby, the World Bank representative here. "He doesn't even pretend to offer a vision of the future. All he is keen to do is to stay in power."

Isolated abroad and increasingly unpopular at home, Lukashenko can still count on the police to break up peaceful anti-government rallies, as they have done twice this year, and to arrest the organizers or drive them into exile.

But he could not stop the election of the country's first post-Soviet parliament last winter, when voters ignored his call to stay home. And he has been drawn into a running battle with the Constitutional Court, which has challenged some of his actions as impeachable offenses.

Speaking to lawmakers this month, Lukashenko accused them of being "the chief obstacle to socioeconomic development" and defended his constitutional proposals to strip parliament and the court of their independent power.

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His amendments would allow him to appoint an upper chamber of parliament and a majority of the court, to take control of the Election Commission away from the lower house and to annul any decision by a local authority. One amendment would start Lukashenko's five-year term anew--extending it, in effect, by 2 1/2 years.

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