Adopting a harsh tone reminiscent of the Cold War, the hardline leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, yesterday threatened to expel diplomats and journalists who attended demonstrations against his policy of tighter integration with Russia.
"We have issued protests to a number of diplomats," he said in remarks likely to astonish Western embassies used to more relaxed working conditions since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "We will act here in unbending fashion as a sovereign and independent state. A diplomat must not march at the head of a demonstration."
Diplomats and reporters had been observing a protest by about 20,000 people who took to the streets of Minsk on Tuesday after Mr Lukashenko signed a treaty with President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin creating a mini-common market of Russia and Belarus.
Mr Lukashenko was especially angry Russian television failed to point out he had banned street marches after a similar protest of Belarussian nationalists in March. "Active talks" had started with Russian television, he said. "These journalists will not be working here for many more days."
As for the Western media, they were "so worried about our democracy. If this had happened in your country, you would not have dealt with it in such a fashion," he said.
Along with Uzbekistan, where the KGB remains active, Belarus is among the most conservative former Soviet republics. This is thanks to Mr Lukashenko, whose eccentric behaviour prompts comparison with Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The Belarus leader censors the local media and has suspended trade unions. Last year, he angered Washington by failing to apologise when the Belarus air force shot down American civilian balloonists who accidentally drifted over the republic's territory.
His dead hand has been particularly felt on the economy, which is so stagnant that the IMF has withdrawn support from Belarus. It is because of his republic's economic difficulties that he wants to move closer to Russia.
Tuesday's treaty stopped short of creating a single state but provided for co-ordinated foreign and defence policies and a common market in goods, services and labour. It was immediately criticised by economists in Moscow who said Mr Yeltsin, in his haste to convince voters he was matching Communist efforts to restore the old empire, exposed Russia to the danger of being milked by Belarus.
But there are signs Mr Yeltsin's passion might be cooling. On Tuesday, he and Mr Lukashenko called their new union the Commonwealth of Sovereign Republics, whose Russian acronym SSR is only one letter short of SSSR (USSR). But alarmed by derisive press comment, Kremlin aides on Wednesday spoke only of a "Commonwealth Treaty".
Letters, page 20
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies