Belarus Vote Will Not Affect Independence, Says Minister

MINSK -- Belarus has voted overwhelmingly for economic integration with Russia and what could turn out to be a powerless parliament, but Foreign Minister Vladimir Senko says the country is by no means about to disappear from the map.

"While we move closer to Russia economically, we cannot give up what's most important -- our sovereignty, independence and statehood," Senko said in an interview.

"Belarus' sovereignty is not for sale. These are not mere words. We have to look at reality. Belarus has strong ties with Russia ... but I think national consciousness will grow quickly."

The outcome of Sunday's voting favored President Alexander Lukashenko. Voters overwhelmingly backed four referendum questions, including economic integration with Russia, equal status for Russian alongside the little-used Belarussian language and reversion to symbols similar to those of the Soviet era.

They also backed a proposal to give Lukashenko the right to dissolve parliament if it violated the constitution.

Senko said Monday the outcome reflected a people adrift after centuries of domination by Russian and Polish neighbors. "Our history is very complex, characterized by the absence of statehood over many centuries," he said. "Belarus has been struck by periods of devastation and oppression. This cannot but influence our mentality."

Belarus has yet to establish a separate identity in the post-Soviet world, after decades of subservience to the Kremlin under communism.

Nationalists were more blunt in explaining the vote.

"Whatever question the regime put forward, it was sure to win," said Zenon Poznyak, leader of the Belarussian Popular Front. "People would have voted in favor of mass suicide by hanging if it had been on the ballot paper."

?Belarus made a first step toward rebuilding the Soviet Union when it voted for closer economic integration with Russia and Soviet-style state symbols, The Associated Press on Tuesday cited the communist daily Pravda as saying.

"It was in Belarus that the criminal act of liquidating the Soviet Union was committed, and its revival will begin in Belarus, too," the newspaper said.