All power to Europe's dictator

Vote in Belarus kills democracy
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The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, yesterday crowned himself the victor in his campaign to acquire autocratic powers after claiming to have won an overwhelming majority in an illegal referendum.

Government officials said that 70 per cent of the electorate supported his proposals to change the constitution, although that figure will not be taken seriously by many outside the former Soviet republic, as the poll was riddled with flaws.

Undeterred by international criticism, the 42-year-old President yesterday made clear that he intended to act on the referendum which gives him de facto control of the constitutional court, the electoral commission, and greater influence over a new two-chamber parliament. It also extends his term by two years.

Although his move is the death-knell for Belarus's fledgling democracy, there were few initial signs that it would meet strong resistance either at home, where the streets were quiet last night, or abroad. Even if it wanted to intervene, the West has few levers with which to control the unpredictable President, beyond continuing not to invest in the shattered, state-dominated, economy.

Russia appeared equally reluctant to get involved any deeper than it already is. Moscow has avoided outright criticism of Mr Lukashenko, not least because it does not want to encourage his foes in parliament to make any moves which threaten the republic's stability, its main priority in the region. The Kremlin, overwhelmed by its own problems, has no desire to be drawn into an expensive crisis on its neighbour's turf.

Nor is the Russian leadership in a rush to support parliamentarians who refused to approve last week's Moscow-brokered compromise deal in Belarus, to the embarrassment of Boris Yeltsin who prematurely hailed it as a "great victory". Yesterday the Kremlin insisted that the failed deal had helped avert unrest.

Last night Mr Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm director who has a sprawling security apparatus at his disposal, appeared to hold most of the cards. He said he hoped to introduce the changes by Christmas, pointing out that it would be "very hard" for his parliamentary opponents to insist the referendum was illegal, given his "overwhelming" majority.

But his opponents were not lacking in evidence. Among the flaws in the poll were the President's use of the mass media to bombard his 10 million population with propaganda supporting his case, whilst excluding the views of his opponents from the airwaves.

When the head of the electoral commission, Viktor Gonchar, raised irregularities in voting, which began two weeks ago, the President fired him, even though his post was a parliamentary appointment. Mr Gonchar yesterday condemned the result as a "fantastic" fake. Independent election monitors from the European Parliament found more than 1,000 violations in the poll which allegedly had an 84 per cent turn-out. Mr Lukashenko has also ignored a ruling by the constitutional court which said the referendum was advisory only.

But it was unclear what his parliamentary opponents, isolated and facing powerful security services, will now do. Denouncing the vote as a "farce", the speaker of parliament, Semyon Sharetsky, called for an international effort to "prevent a dictatorial regime from consolidating itself in our country".

That will not occur. Moves by MPs to impeach the President may continue in Belarus's constitutional court, but Mr Lukashenko is unlikely to pay heed to its findings, which he had repeatedly ignored before. The other options, such a parliamentary sit-in, a la Moscow 1993, are equally unlikely to persuade Belarus's new dictator to change his ways.