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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko to Put Spin on 'Grab for Power'

MINSK, Belarus -- Picture this: President Alexander Lukashenko, defender of democracy on the cover of Fortune magazine. Lukashenko, champion of the free market, written up favorably in the Economist. On television throughout Europe and America, up to 15 minutes with the charming and powerful Belarussian leader.

That is the plan drawn up within Lukashenko's administration and possibly already approved by the president.

Lukashenko, president of the small former Soviet republic of Belarus, has until now received poor reviews in the Western press and from Western governments who have panned him for everything from arresting scores of dissidents and sabotaging economic reform to driving the leader of the main opposition party from the country.

But the president, now bent on a national referendum to extend his powers, wants that to change.

In a five-page anonymous document produced by Lukashenko's staff and obtained by The Moscow Times, the plan calls for spending $1 million and 500 million rubles (about $86,000) to put a favorable international spin on his referendum plan.

The exact nature of the referendum remains unclear but Lukashenko has said he wants to extend his presidential term from five to seven years and to appoint some parliament and constitutional court members. He has also proposed a grab bag of additional questions, including queries about allowing private land ownership and abolishing the death penalty.

The referendum has been slammed as a naked grab for power by opposition groups.

Lukashenko technically needs parliament's approval for it, but a broad coalition of political forces -- including nationalists, communists and liberals -- have united against him. Already parliamentarians are criticizing Lukashenko as a dictator and the referendum for its $2 million price tag.

To hold off criticism of the referendum -- which Lukashenko suggested last week could be held Nov. 7, the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution -- the "counter-propaganda" plan calls for painting parliament, reform and democratization. The parliament, while far from radical, has made timid steps forward.

"When the president says the Supreme Soviet is holding up reform, people who follow politics find it hilarious," said Victar Dyatlikovich, political editor of the independent weekly Belarusskaya Gazeta.

The plan's authors suggest a campaign on several fronts, including:

?sending confidential letters from Lukashenko to other world leaders explaining the referendum in terms of Lukashenko's democratic and capitalist ideals;

?sending official representatives of Lukashenko "who are fluent in foreign languages" to "all friendly countries" to agitate for the referendum;

?organizing articles written by the minster of foreign affairs or other high ranking officials "in journals such as Foreign Affairs [U.S.]";

?organizing for business magazines "such as The Economist [Britain] or Fortune [U.S.] ... material about the economic situation in Belarus with the key explanations about the goal of reforms";

?preparing for "one of the academic-political journals of the former 'Sovietology' profile, such as the Slavic review [Britain] ... the musings of the president about the paths and methods for conserving social stability in transition periods";

?publishing in English and Russian, a "reworked" supplement to Lukashenko's book "Belarus: The Road to the Future" and distributing the book abroad via bookstores and "our connections with social circles";

?preparing three videos about Lukashenko, each aimed at different audiences: "for the countries of the West and northwestern Europe, winningly draw out the president's business sense and determination, his understanding of the need for reform; for the countries of southern and southeastern Europe, lightly note his temperament; for the countries of Eastern Europe, his dedication to social and national peace."

The videos in particular, each under 15 minutes, would make use of Lukashenko's "communicativeness and openly pleasant manner."

This personal charm of Lukashenko is something the authors of the plan see as a powerful tool: A preamble notes that Lukashenko on a recent visit to France "made an extremely good impression on French President Jacques Chirac, who in a small circle of advisers spoke of the definitely compatible characters of the two presidents."

The plan also calls for putting propaganda out on the Internet, on the quasi-state Russian information agencies, Itar-Tass and Interfax, and on Belarussian government radio and television.

"Serious attention must be paid to the financial side," the authors wrote. "Taking into account that the honoraria of the famous foreign journalists (particularly [those in] TV) could reach $400,000 to $600,000 a year; that one minute of television time could cost $10,000; that one column in a newspaper can cost up to $200,000; to underwrite the external-political program will be allocated $1 million and 500 million rubles."

A spokesman for Lukashenko said he had never heard of the plan, which mentioned four of Lukashenko's close allies, including Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich, who is charged by name with guaranteeing much of the plan's work.

Antonovich on Wednesday told The Moscow Times the plan was disinformation prepared by Lukashenko's opponents. He added, however, that the premise of the plan -- that the referendum was designed to free Lukashenko from an anticapitalist, antidemocratic parliament -- was correct.

A program to impress the West with Lukashenko might succeed. This tiny country of 10 million is little known, and outsiders tend to view it as little more than a miniature version of neighboring Russia, Dyatlikovich said.

So those familiar with Russia but not Belarus might be confused by the memory of President Boris Yeltsin's showdown in 1993 with his recalcitrant parliament. Yeltsin's decision to disband the Supreme Soviet and then destroy the White House with tank fire was widely portrayed in the West as a necessary evil.