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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Wake of Pact, Minsk a City in Rebellion

MINSK, Belarus -- Police sirens wailed in short bursts and the motorcade of shiny black Mercedes cars swept up the broad empty street and round the Victory monument. President Alexander Lukashenko, invisible behind dark tinted windows, was home from Moscow, driving through the capital like a Soviet leader of old.

Bar the Mercedes, Lukashenko, the former collective farm manager and champion of union with Russia, has taken his country back in time during his two years in office.

He discarded the white and red flag, adopted after independence in 1991, and ordered the communist red banner with its green band for Soviet Belarussia -- albeit without a hammer and sickle -- to fly once more from government buildings.

Belarussian schools were closed down. Russian was once more made a state language and integration with Russia became the main aim of the Lukashenko presidency.

The Belarussian president's big day came last week in the Kremlin when he signed a treaty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin creating the Community of Sovereign Republics, or the SSR.

The treaty goes further than any previous agreement, calling for a unified economic zone leading to a single currency, a coordinated foreign policy, and joint action on security and fighting crime.

But Lukashenko's triumph was short-lived. Just days after the treaty was signed, his normally apathetic countrymen took to the streets by the tens of thousands to protest.

Elena Gogolyeva, 20, a student at Minsk's foreign languages institute, was among them. She went on a whim, she said, but what she saw and heard hit her like a bombshell.

"Belarus is a very quiet country," she said. "We are not a people who would get up and defend ourselves. But in fact something big is going on. People want to be a republic, to be a nation, we want our individuality," she said, standing in the corridor of her student hostel.

People demonstrating against the agreement were driven by two concerns, Gogolyeva said.

"They are for economic integration with Russia but they fear most of all military union. All the young men fear the of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the BNF accused Lukashenko of selling out his country.

"He is breaking our sovereignty," said Valery Buival, 40, a former curator of the National Art Museum in Minsk, who is deputy leader of the BNF and head of its foreign relations commission.

"We are losing our authority in world relations and authority over our own sovereignty," he said. "It represents the expansion of the Russian empire westward."

Stanislav Shushkevich, former speaker of the Supreme Soviet and Belarus' first head of state, had harsh words for his successor.

"Lukashenko does not know what to do," he said. "For reforms he only knows Soviet law, so that is the formula he wants."

Shushkevich said Lukashenko is trying to seize the political initiative after two years in power and with the economy in ruins. "It is primitive," he said of his move for union with Russia.

One Western observer in Minsk gave Lukashenko more credit. "He has some political gifts and cunning. He can be charming and has bested people who thought they were cleverer than him," the observer said.

When the SSR treaty was signed April 2, Belarussian state television lauded the president's historic achievement, showing pictures of the Kremlin and Red Square and suggesting the name of the man responsible for the SSR be written forever in gold.

The implication was difficult to miss. "He sees himself on a larger stage," the observer said.

Buival agreed. "He wants to be tsar, or president, but he wants to be president of it all, of the whole union."

But few gave him much chance of success, even with the help of the union treaty.

"The economy cannot continue in this way. If Lukashenko thinks Russia will dig into its pockets, he is in for a big surprise," the Western observer said.

Belarus lags behind Russia in economic reforms, largely thanks to Lukashenko. Some 80 percent to 90 percent of the economy remains in state hands; privatization only reached the shop level and has now come to a complete halt.

The IMF suspended the second slice of a $300 million credit for lack of compliance on debt issues, privatization and exchange rates.

Businessmen are up in arms, according to Pavel Sheremetyev, editor of Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, a twice-weekly independent business newspaper.

Their main objections are to the president's moves to nationalize the banks, he said. Also problematic is the recent suspension of the registration of firms pending a new law to bring back full state control.

"Business activity is falling. Most businessmen are trying to keep money outside the country," said Sheremetyev, who was himself forced to print his three newspapers in neighboring Lithuania after the state-operated presses refused to print and distribute them. "We are going back to the old times."