Belarus poll paves way to dictatorship

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Despite Moscow's attempts to mediate between the warring politicians of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the hardline president of the republic, went ahead on his own terms yesterday with a constitutional referendum which his opponents in parliament say will hand him the powers of a dictator.

Kremlin diplomacy with the Chechens over the weekend was more successful, although President Boris Yeltsin's Communist and nationalist critics denounced his decision to with- draw Russian troops from the Caucasian region as a sell-out to the separatists.

The Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, went so far as to call for a vote of no-confidence in the government over Saturday's co-operation deal with the Chechens, which he said marked the beginning of the break-up of the Russian Federation. "This is Belovezh Mark 2," he said, referring to the Belarussian town where Mr Yeltsin and the then leaders of Ukraine and Belarus met in 1991 to disband the Soviet Union.

Since then, former Soviet republics have had mixed success in achieving market reform and developing democracy. Under Mr Lukashenko, Belarus, which is lagging economically, has also started to give the world cause for concern over its respect for human rights.

The Belarus President - compared by opponents with Adolf Hitler, a dictator who rose to power via the ballot box - is using the referendum in an attempt to increase his power at the expense of parliament and extend his term by two years. The crisis is reminiscent of October 1993, when President Yeltsin was locked in conflict with parliament and resolved it only with the use of tanks.

The Kremlin is this time very anxious to avoid violence. On Friday, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, reflecting Moscow's concern lest its immediate neighbour to the west should become unstable, spent hours brokering a compromise deal between Mr Lukashenko and the Belarus parliament whereby the referendum would be used to gauge public opinion but not necessarily produce constitutional changes. But the deal broke down on Saturday and voting proceeded yesterday on Mr Lukashenko's terms.

Mr Chernomyrdin, expressing "deep regret" at the collapse of the compromise, blamed Belarus deputies for failing to ratify it, but added that Mr Lukashenko had not tried hard enough. "The executive branch of power in Belarus failed to show the insistence and endur-ance needed to bring the agreements into effect," he said.

Moscow and the rest of the world can only watch now to see how the 10 million people of Belarus vote - the result is expected today - and how Mr Lukashenko acts on their verdict. Nato, which the Belarus leader once called a "dreadful monster", has a particular interest in developments because the republic, wedged between Russia and Poland, still retains some Soviet-era nuclear missiles, although they are due to be transferred to Russia for dismantling next week.

Although it was a distant dream in August, when the city of Grozny witnessed a full-scale war, harmony does seem to have been achieved between Moscow and the Chechens. The agreement signed by Mr Chernomyrdin and the head of the Chechen rebel government, Aslan Maskhadov, in a Moscow hotel on Saturday provides for the withdrawal of the last two Russian brigades from Chechnya and economic co-operation.