Hardline Belarus triggers alarm

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The Independent Online
Britain and several other European governments have declared their alarm over plans by the hardline President of Belarus to stage a referendum which, if passed, would give him near totalitarian powers, and reverse his country's tentative steps towards democracy.

Acting through their ambassadors in Minsk, Britain, Italy, France and Germany have challenged Alexander Lukashenko over the poll which has caused a hostile stand-off between the President and parliament, prompting fears that a show-down is looming. He has responded angrily by accusing the West of meddling in his nation's internal affairs.

The exchange is a measure of the growing international concern over Mr Lukashenko's proposed referendum which will give him huge powers over his 10 million population, whose legacy from the Soviet empire includes a nuclear arsenal, a large army, and a strong secret police. "We will have a second Haiti in the centre of Europe," Valery Tikhinya, chairman of the Constitutional Court, warned recently. "It will be a dictatorship."

Free speech has no more taken root in Belarus than the free market (less than 10 per cent of the economy is privatised), but Mr Lukashenko has tightened his throttle-grip on the media still further as the vote approaches, closing down the only private radio station, and freezing the bank accounts of the already restricted opposition newspapers. Belarusans who tune into their state-run television channel face a barrage of propaganda in favour of their president, unsullied by alternative views.

Mr Lukashenko, 42, a former collective-farm director, was elected in 1994, after winning support from rural Belarusans who saw him as an old- style party man who would serve as a bulwark against the harsh consequences of switching to a market economy. He has kept most of the old structures intact, beefing up his presidential security service and KGB with recruits from Moscow. But he complains that his efforts to revive his shattered economy have been continuously blocked by the legislature, and the constitutional court, whose rulings he frequently ignores.

If approved, his referendum would create a second, more powerful, legislative chamber under his control (he would have the right to appoint a third of the members, while the rest would be drawn from officials, appointed by his administration). His own term of office would be extended for seven years. He would chose half the constitutional court and half the electoral commission.

The poll - which he wants to hold on 7 November, the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - is the latest battle in a war which he has waged with parliament for months. Last year, he tried to close down the legislature altogether by urging Belarusans to boycott parliamentary elections, destroying its quorum. But the voters scuppered his scheme by turning out. This time, amid rumblings that members are moving to impeach him, parliament has counter-attacked by calling its own referendum on 24 November which proposes to make Belarus a parliamentary republic.

Which side will win is a matter of debate. Although Mr Lukashenko controls almost all the media, and has a strong rump of support in the countryside, his opponents - who complain of being harrassed and bugged by the security services - say his referendum will only pass if he cheats. They also say it is illegal as only the parliament can set a referendum date.

"There are only two ways he can win," said Stanislav Bogdankevich, an opposition leader, "mounting a coup d'etat, or falsifying the poll".

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