Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Set For Return To Rule by Hardliners

Communists are set to return to power in the former Soviet republic of Belarus after removing its reformist head of state, Stanislav Shushkevich, in a vote of no-confidence that one observer called a "quiet counterrevolution."

The Belarus parliament on Thursday debated ways to replace Shushkevich, all of which would lead to an opponent of his fast-track reforms being named head of state.

"This will not improve the chances of democratic development or of the intensification of reforms in Belarus," Sergei Naumchik, a leader of the anti-Communist opposition in the Belarus parliament, told Russia's NTV television.

Shushkevich, who together with President Boris Yeltsin and Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk brought about the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991, remains popular in Belarus, but has been under fire both in parliament and in his government for the past two year over his efforts to conduct democratic reform.

Although the nominal reason for the vote was a corruption charge, Shushkevich's demise was triggered by the extradition to Lithuania this month of two Communists implicated in the January 1991 crackdown against that Baltic nation in which 14 civilians died.

The vote coincided with the triumph of champions of a slower approach to reform in the Russian government following the defeat of reformists in December elections.

Political analyst Emil Pain, a former adviser to Yeltsin, said that the Belarus Communists would not have taken the no-confidence vote "if they had not felt the strengthening of their position among their fellow thinkers not only in the Russian parliament, but also in the Russian government."

Itar-Tass quoted Pain calling the Belarus vote a holiday for Communists in the former Soviet Union who are conducting a "quiet counterrevolution."

Shushkevich, a liberal physicist who -- unlike the leaders of Russia and Ukraine -- was never a member of the Communist Party, was ousted in a 206-39 vote on Wednesday, just 11 days after being backed by U.S. President Bill Clinton during his visit to Minsk this month.

In Washington, a Clinton official said the United States regretted Shushkevich's removal "because he was a very strong supporter of denuclearization and democratic and economic reform."

Two conservatives stood the best chance of being elected to replace Shushkevich: Mechislav Grib, the candidate of the pro-Communist Belarus faction, and Mikhail Marinich, deputy chairman of the foreign economic relations commission.

Another plan was to retain Shushkevich's first deputy, Vyacheslav Kuz-netsov, acting head of state. Under Belarus' constitution, Kuznetsov, a Soviet-era official, automatically took Shushkevich's powers after Wednesday's vote.

A third possibility was that Vyacheslav Kebich, the prime minister who opposed Shushkevich's reforms and survived a confidence vote Wednesday by 101-175, would be named head of state.

Kebich's chief adviser, Nikolai Skorynin, said Shushkevich's defeat did not spell the end of Belarus' reforms, citing a recently approved plan to unite the currency systems of Belarus and Russia.

"The republic has set a firm course on uniting its currency systems with Russia," Skoryinin said. "This means that Belarus will have to reform its economy at the same speed as Russia."

This reassurance took on a hollow ring, given calls by Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to revert to price and wage controls and other "non-monetarist" ways of battling inflation.

The current Belarus Supreme Soviet was elected in 1990, under rules that overwhelmingly favored members of the Soviet Communist Party.

Many deputies were leery of Shush-kevich's efforts to build up the political sovereignty of the country of 10 million, which has for centuries been overshadowed by Russia and remains beholden to its giant neighbor. Belarus imports 90 percent of its fuel from Russia; 70 percent of its exports are bought by Russia.

Unlike Ukraine, Belarus' separatist movement was weak under Soviet rule, and remains weak, holding only 10 percent of parliament seats.

A Russian Foreign Ministry official who spoke anonymously suggested that relations with Belarus could be better after the removal of Shushkevich, who had stalled before signing last year's collective security agreement with Russia.

"The major political forces are in favor of deepening cooperation," he said.

Shushkevich himself has admitted that his country was largely unchanged.

"We have a very conservative structure," Shushkevich told the British paper The Independent recently. "It was created in the time of the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic and has not changed. The nomenklatura is very strong."