Compromise in Belarus? Breathing room: Nuclear missiles are destroyed, a political confrontation may be over.

November 23, 1996

NOTHING IN Belarus is as easy as it seems. A deal to defuse a political confrontation between authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and the country's parliament began unraveling almost as soon as it was struck yesterday.

Under the deal, brokered by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the parliament is to agree not to seek Mr. Lukashenko's impeachment. For his part, the president, who wanted to acquire nearly dictatorial powers and extend his term until the year 2001 through a referendum tomorrow, has pledged to regard the results as non-binding.

Even though the president and the parliament were still feuding over the tentative deal last night -- and calling Moscow for interpretation -- an important impasse was resolved: After months of disputes, President Lukashenko has handed over the last batch of Soviet-era nuclear missiles to Russia, where they are to be destroyed in accordance with the stipulations of the START I arms reduction treaty.

The power struggle in Belarus has caused deep worries not only in Russia but in such neighboring countries as Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.

The task now is to make the political portions of the settlement stick. This will not be an easy challenge because the 42-year-old Mr. Lukashenko is a power-hungry megalomaniac. On the one hand, he admires Adolf Hitler -- although Belarus bore the brunt of the World War II Nazi invasion; on the other, he dreams of a return to what he sees as the glory days of the Soviet Union. All this has pitted him against the badly divided parliament, where many nationalist politicians are wary of Mr Lukashenko's concentrated attempts to link Belarus more closely to Moscow's orbit.

In post-communist geopolitical parlance, Belarus is part of the "near-abroad" -- former Soviet republics that Moscow continues to regard as belonging to its sphere of influence. Because of decades of Sovietization, no other former Soviet republic lost quite as much of its national identity as the one-time Byelorussia. In many ways, Belarus citizens today are hardly indistinguishable from Russians.

Mr. Chernomyrdin's mediation efforts in the Belarus crisis have once again demonstrated Moscow's influence in the "near-abroad." Such clout may be good or bad. This time, the injection of moderation seems to have been good.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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