Belarus' reform president is ousted

January 28, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MINSK, Belarus -- This tiny republic, which has walked so unsteadily on the path to sovereignty since the breakup of the Soviet Union that it still hasn't managed to come up with its own national anthem, now is willingly sliding back under Russia's wing.

A decisive act in that course occurred this week when the old guard, stung by Belarus' role in the breakup of the Soviet Union, threw out the man determined to stay the course on independence from Moscow.

Having waited patiently for two years they got rid of President Stanislav Shushkevich, who had tried to push for some sort of economic reform, but, even more damningly, had been one of the three founders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, back in December 1991, which spelled the end of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Shushkevich headed a government whose Parliament was completely dominated by members of the old Communist nomenklatura. They frankly admitted that they had been seeking their moment to do him in. Late Wednesday night, they seized on a fairly dubious pretext of corruption in his office, and out he went.

Mr. Shushkevich had been wary of the Parliament's decision to go back to the Russian ruble, he had opposed its orders to sign a mutual security treaty with Moscow, and he had tried, gently, to carve out an identity for Belarus as a country rather than as a Soviet republic.

But the Parliament had it in for him.

"We have an anti-people government," said one of Belarus' lonely nationalists, Zyanon Paznyak. "Their goal is to rejoin the Russian empire. They work for Russian imperialism."

Nobody in Minsk admits to this, naturally. But Russian diplomats here were purring in satisfaction over the week's events, predicting even closer relations between the two countries.

Historically, Belarus, formerly Byelorussia, has been dominated by Moscow for the last 200 years.

And what happened here has even broader implications, for Belarus could be Russia's first great success in an evolving policy toward its immediate neighbors. Russia is insisting, ever more adamantly, on maintaining its sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union.

That insistence has only become louder with the strong showing of Russian nationalists in the December elections.

In a complementary way, those Russian election results, which gave a boost to the anti-West, anti-reform factions in Moscow, seem to have emboldened Mr. Shushkevich's enemies in Minsk.

He was never a firebrand. He was always careful to treat Russia as a friendly neighbor -- indeed, a friendly neighbor that is 80 times larger than Belarus. But he remained for many the symbol of a not-very-welcome independence.

Alexander Lukashenko, one of the parliamentary chairman's foes, said that Mr. Shushkevich "did not express the will and yearnings of most Parliament members."

Some predicted that he will be only the first of the commonwealth's founders to be driven from office. The others -- both now under fire at home as well -- were Leonid Kravchuk, president of Ukraine, and Boris N. Yeltsin, president of Russia.

As parliamentary chairman, Mr. Shushkevich was head of state, but the power in the government, particularly over economic issues, really belongs to Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, an old-line Communist.

Mr. Shushkevich's biggest frustration, up to Wednesday evening, was his inability to get economic reform moving. In an interview before his removal from office, he said that the government's unwillingness to tackle the economy was a disaster.

"We say now that our unemployment rate is 1.2 percent," he said. "This is nonsense, because many of our plants are at a standstill. People are paid two-thirds of their salaries; the plants do not produce anything. The situation is really very grave."

Mr. Kebich's solution has been to ditch the Belarus ruble -- known here as the "bunny rabbit" -- and to join in a monetary union with Russia.

He suggests that all will be fine once that move is made, because Belarus could then buy Russian oil and gas at domestic rates. In the process, however, Belarus would also hand over control of its economy to Moscow.

Stanislav Bogdankevich, chairman of the Belarus National Bank, views that step with equanimity.

"We'll coordinate growth in the money supply, in credits," he said. "We used to coordinate it with the International Monetary Fund. Now we'll coordinate it with Moscow."

Viktor Yatskovski is skeptical. He is chief engineer of Tractor Factory Named After Lenin, which produces 10 percent of all the tractors in the world and which is an intended beneficiary of the monetary union.

They sell 40 percent of their tractors to Russia and buy almost all their steel from Russia. The factory employs 30,000 workers, who are on a reduced work week now because of a drop in business.

"In principle, of course having one currency should be better -- but that's only in principle," said Mr. Yatskovski. "There's no way of knowing how it will actually work out."

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