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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Turns the Clocks Back a Decade or Two

MINSK, Belarus -- On an overcast winter's morning this week, the gray-suited deputies of Belarussia's parliament peered anxiously out the windows of the Supreme Soviet to check on demonstrators collecting outside.

Protesters had threatened to rally against the parliament and prime minister after they had promised to freeze food prices and clamp down on reforms.

But when the deputies saw just a few hundred people huddled in Independence Square below, they quickly abandoned a promise to debate fresh elections. The stereotype of a passive Belarussian nation had held true and the Soviet-era legislators could heave a sigh of relief.

The deputies spent Tuesday's opening session of parliament appointing conservatives to head the KGB and the Interior Ministry.

"The orthodox communists are consolidating their power," said Sergei Naumchik, a member of the minority Belarus Popular Front, which constitutes about 10 percent of the national assembly.

"We are not going back to the Gorbachev era here," said Naumchik as he gloomily watched the parliamentary debate Wednesday. "This is like going back to 1983."

The relationship between Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich and the parliament is a cozy one. In the three years Kebich has headed the Council of Ministers, the conservative parliament, dominated by the People's Movement of Belarus, has not rejected a single government program.

"We have one of the most stable governments in Europe," said Nikolai Skarinin, a member of the conservative Belarus faction and an adviser to the Council of Ministers.

To Naumchik and other opposition politicians, this "stability" translates into political stagnation, and domination by what Naumchik calls "the red monolith" over a small industrial nation of 10 million.The night before parliament's opening session Stanislav Shushkevich, the reformist Supreme Soviet chairman ousted at the end of January, bemoaned the economic future of his country, in which over 70 percent of factories have either closed altogether or are working at a reduced level.

"Our government," said Shushkevich in an interview, "talks about a market economy. But it doesn't do anything about conducting market reforms."

The path to market reform in Belarus has been hesitant at best. Although privatization laws were approved last July, barely 10 percent of Belarussian enterprises have been privatized and a plan to distribute vouchers in April has not yet been formalized.

In a televised speech on Feb. 13, Kebich spoke of freezing food prices and said: "Those who called for 'shock therapy' and wanted to speed up movement toward a market economy are mistaken."

Kebich added that "speculative trade" would soon be banned by government decree.

According to Shushkevich, "immediate elections" for parliament are the only possible solution -- but these are not scheduled until Nov. 20 and could be delayed.

The deputies are now considering -- for the fifth time -- creating a president of Belarus, to be elected this summer. If the legislature decides to bestow strong powers on the republic's presidency, Kebich almost certainly will run for the post.

Even Kebich's opponents concede that a victory for the prime minister is almost a foregone conclusion, against a field of fringe candidates like Shushkevich and Belarussian Popular Front leader Zenin Pozniak.

One of the next government proposals due to be brought before the legislature is the imminent monetary union with its powerful neighbor, Russia.

Kebich has described the monetary union with Russia as "the only option" for Belarus, whose industry is suffering heavily under the increased cost of buying oil and gas from Russia.

Despite the government's enthusiasm for the project, opposition leaders like Alexander Dobrovolsky, president of the United Democratic Party of Belarus, believe any accord will be short-lived, given the policy differences between Belarus, which has barely started on reform and Russia, which is relatively advanced.

"Each country has a different mission," he said. "Anyway, it makes no difference what the Belarussian parliament ratifies. They'd pass a law forbidding the sun to rise tomorrow. It doesn't mean it will happen."

For many Belarussians, like factory director Vassily Shlyndikov, the longer the planned union is postponed the better, "Why should I be dependent on some idiot in Moscow?" he asks. "I'd rather have my own idiot here. At least he's closer."