Belarus is warned about crackdown on opposition

European Parliament threatens to take action

June 23, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MINSK, Belarus - Saying that Europe is poised between "hope and fear" over the future of democracy in Belarus, a delegation from the European Parliament severely criticized yesterday President Aleksandr Lukashenko's assault on his political opponents and threatened to withhold a team of observers for elections he is trying to orchestrate for the fall.

The election struggle puts the country of 10 million between Russia and Poland at a crucial junction. Lukashenko is seeking to restore the legitimacy of his hard-line nationalist government after he disbanded a democratically elected parliament in 1996, installed his own rump parliament and extended his term to 2001 in a referendum that was widely condemned as rigged.

The opposition, which includes many leading figures who helped separate Belarus from the Soviet Union in 1991 and establish an independent state, is trying to remove Lukashenko by forcing him to submit to a fair election, which they say he will lose.

If he refuses to conduct such an election, several opposition leaders have said, they will carry on the battle as best they can, even in the streets, where some warned that a confrontation could be looming.

Mikhail Chigir, who was Lukashenko's first prime minister before breaking with him over the 1996 dissolution of Parliament, said yesterday that he intends to run for Parliament this fall and for president next spring if Lukashenko allows genuine elections.

"I am going to continue this struggle and I have no intention of stopping halfway," Chigir said after enduring eight months of imprisonment and a political trial that left him stripped of any right to run for office. He hopes that decision can be reversed by pressure from Russia, Europe and the United States.

The United States and Russian want Lukashenko to come to terms with opposition forces and to allay the climate of fear that critics say has smothered the nascent democratic institutions that brought Lukashenko to power in 1994.

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