Belarus elects hardline leader

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WITH RADICAL reform in retreat in Russia and stillborn in Ukraine, the most retro grade of the Soviet Union's Slav republics, Belarus, stumbled even deeper into the grip of unrepentant Soviet-era cadres yesterday with the election of a veteran security apparatchik as head of state.

The vote caps a week of political upheaval that has swept the ministers of interior and security from office and unseated Stanislav Shushke vich, a liberal former physicist, as parliamentary chairman. It signals a decisive shift away from even timid economic reforms and could propel Belarus towards some sort of re-integration with Russia.

The Belarus parliament, the Supreme Soviet, voted last night in favour of Mechislav Grib, head of the security and defence committee, to replace Mr Shushkevich as chairman. Relations with Russia are the crux. Nationalists, who are in a small minority, see a Moscow- inspired plot to install Soviet bureaucrats and rebuild the lost empire. Other deputies, many of them nostalgic for the Soviet era and at best indifferent to Belarus's status as an independent state, argue for a confederation or some other amalgamation with Russia.

In an ominous sign of Moscow's mood, the Russian military newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), described changes in Belarus as a victory for 'pragmatists' willing to 'waive some elements of illusory sovereignty'. The front- page article reflects the thinking of the military establish ment, which sees the statehood of Belarus and Ukraine as only temporary.

'Our relations with the East and Great Russia are of the utmost importance to us,' said Mr Grib last night. Mr Shushkevich, by contrast, had preferred to stress relations with the West. Mr Grib's only rival in a final round of voting was Mikhail Marinich, erstwhile boss of the Minsk Communist Party. In the absence of a presidency, the post of chairman is the highest, though real power is in the hands of Vyacheslav Kebich, the conservative Prime Minister and consummate back-room operator.

Mr Shushkevich was deeply unpopular among conservatives for having joined Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk in a Belarus forest to sign away the Soviet Union in December 1991. All three leaders were singled out for praise by President Bill Clinton when he visited Ukraine, Russia and Belarus two weeks ago. All are now in deep trouble.

Mr Shushkevich is the most senior figure to lose office so far in an anti-reform backlash that is sweeping across much of the former Soviet Union. In an interview with the Independent shortly before his ousting, he said: 'When a crisis occurs there are always Bolshevik urges. The elite is afraid to introduce market mechanisms. This threatens their power. They fear they won't be needed. They are afraid of reform.'

Mr Grib seems to see closer ties with Russia as the only way out of an economic calamity that has produced hyperin flation, forced factories to shut down many workshops and plunged the Belarus rouble - known as the bunny - to around 6,000 to the dollar.

'I don't think he has read much Lenin but he is deeply entrenched in what was the Communist apparat,' said one Western diplomat in Minsk. 'He is a sound grey man.'

These qualities should endear him to Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is due in Minsk early next month to finalise the details of currency union with Belarus. Belarus has already given up autonomy in military matters with a vote in parliament last year in favour of the Commonwealth of Independent State security treaty, a pact effectively run from the Defence Ministry in Moscow.