Back to the U.S.S.R. Belarus: After political compromise fails, president reinstitutes Soviet era symbols.

December 01, 1996

THE WORLD HAS been lucky. Even though the disintegration of the Soviet Union has produced plenty of political and economic convulsions, none of the 15 former Soviet republics has become a source of regional instability.

So far.

All this now threatens to change because of a bizarre power struggle in Belarus. After opposition parliamentarians wanted to tinker with a recent Moscow-brokered political compromise, President Alexander Lukashenko decided he had no reason to negotiate and went ahead with a controversial referendum. He is now creating a handpicked rubber-stamp parliament, extending his term until the year 2001 and assuming nearly dictatorial powers in his country of 10 million people.

The government of Russia's Boris Yeltsin has signaled its approval of Mr. Lukashenko's unilateral actions. Belarus' other neighbors -- Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia -- are expressing worries.

The Russian position is based on pragmatic -- but short-sighted -- considerations of self-interest. Mr. Lukashenko, a former state farm director, has made a closer economic and political union with Russia his principal goal. That plays well in Moscow, where leaders are willing to disregard the autocratic Belarus president's erratic behavior and his longing for the predictability of Soviet times.

In an era when most former Soviet republics are trying to solidify their new independent institutions, Mr. Lukashenko is looking back. He has ordered his country to return to using its Soviet flag. Soviet-era books have been reintroduced as required texts at schools across Belarus because the president feels that books printed after 1992 are "biased."

Through his brazen political stratagems, Mr. Lukashenko has increased his sweeping powers and has neutralized his opposition, which often cannot even find printers within Belarus for its newspapers.

Meanwhile, the republic's economy remains stagnant and the country is a financial basket case. The heavy concentration of power in the hands of an inept president does not bode well for Belarus' future.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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