Poll risks Belarus democracy

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The Independent Online
Citizens of the former Soviet republic of Belarus go to the polls today for scores of parliamentary by-elections, knowing that the outcome could prompt their President, Alexander Lukashenko, to impose direct rule.

It is a prospect that the democrats among them will not relish, given Mr Lukashenko's increasingly dictatorial and eccentric behaviour, including making glowing remarks about Adolf Hitler.

The 16 months in which Mr Lukashenko, a former Communist-era state farm director, has brandished the reins of power over the 10 million people of the country suggests that he has less than a complete commitment to democracy.

Highlights of his reign include closing newspapers, banning free trade unions, and sending riot troops to quell a strike.

No fewer than five presidential decrees - his favoured method of ruling - were declared illegal by the constitutional court within three months, decisions which he not only ignored but which also prompted him to threaten firing the court's chairman. Yet his strong-arm rule has yet to yield many results: four years after independence, living standards in Belarus are even lower than that of Russia.

During Mr Lukashenko's recent visit to Germany he gave an interview, relayed on Belarussian radio, in which he spoke warmly of the unity which Hitler brought to Germany. "The history of Germany is to some extent a mould for the history of Belarus at a specific stage. Germany was at one point raised from ruins, thanks to strong power," he said.

Although he condemned Hitler for launching the Second World War, Mr Lukashenko showed little sensitivity to the suffering inflicted on Belarus, where a quarter of the population died in the Nazi onslaught.

Today's by-elections are in 141 districts where elections last May were declared invalid because of a failure to meet the minimum turn-out. He has decided to impose direct rule if the elections are invalid again.

"Absolute power is absolute responsibility, and I am ready for this," he announced this week. He is certainly well equipped: Belarus has 1,800 tanks and nearly 300 tactical aircraft. It also has a nuclear arsenal.