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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Struggle For Power Brews in Belarus

Belarus, once seen as the drowsiest of the former Soviet republics, is gearing up for a summer of high political drama as President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to consolidate all power in his hands have met determined resistance from his political opponents.


On Saturday at least ul000 Belarussians gathered in Minsk at a rally, where they called the balding, gravelly voiced president a dictator and demanded his impeachment.


Some of Lukashenko's opponents, saying he had ordered them killed, requested political asylum to the United States earlier this week.


Leaders of the Belarussian Popular Front, or BNF, who are the main opposition group to Lukashenko, said Thursday that they believed the hard-line president was preparing to establish a state of emergency under which he could rule by decree.


"We've heard of such a [state of emergency] decree being prepared," said Anatoly Krivorot, secretary of the BNF, in a telephone interview from Minsk. "The KGB and the Security Council have been given orders to develop measures to 'calm the situation.'"


The opposition to Lukashenko began among Belarussian nationalists like the BNF who want the country to stay independent, with its own language, currency and flag.


But fear that Lukashenko is building a dictatorship has united the country's diverse and once-scattered politica between Belarussian nationalist demonstrators and police. Lukashenko responded by arresting hundreds of protesters, journalists who covered the events and anti-government leaders.


Two weeks ago, Lukashenko made an open grab for power, demanding that the Supreme Soviet -- a one-house parliament with whom he has often fought -- amend the constitution to extend his term from five to seven years, or until 2001.


He also called for the creation of an upper legislative house whose members would be presidential appointees, and warned the Supreme Soviet that if lawmakers refused his demands, he would bypass them with a national referendum.


According to the opposition, the next step will be a state of emergency, abrogating the constitution.


BNF spokesmen said Thursday the political atmosphere in Minsk was tense following the request Tuesday of party leader Zenon Poznyak and party press secretary Sergei Naumchik for asylum.


Naumchik and Poznyak -- a Soviet-era dissident famous for his grim determination to dig up mass graves and to catalog the victims of Stalin's repressions -- were visiting Washington D.C. at the time, and their cause has won the attention of U.S. congressmen.


Belarussian authorities say Poznyak is wanted for questioning as a witness to anti-government rallies in March and April. But the BNF's Krivorot said other prominent BNF members, invited to police headquarters to give testimony, have been arrested and charged with crimes immediately upon arrival.


Throughout his two-year reign, Lukashenko, a former collective farm chairman, has worked at two seemingly contradictory goals: to expand the power of his office while surrendering the country's national sovereignty to Russia.


After a brief flirt with the red-and-white Belarussian flag, Lukashenko restored the national symbols of the Soviet Union and sought reunion with Russia. Although he occasionally speaks Belarussian, he makes a point of speaking Russian in most public appearances.


This nostalgia for the Soviet Union has given the drama unfolding in Belarus resonances for Russian politics, where Lukashenko has attracted the fervid sympathy of Communist Party leaders.


Russia's Communist Party -- which has developed a strong nationalist strain -- has approved of Lukashenko's desire for Soviet-style reintegration, under which Minsk would inevitably be Moscow's junior partner.


Supporting their ally Lukashenko, the Communist Party has blamed the flare of political emotion in once-sleepy Belarus on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.


According to Viktor Ilyukhin, a prominent Communist and the chairman of the Duma's security committee, the CIA plans to assassinate "one or two" members of Lukashenko's opposition, and then blame the killings on Lukashenko.


Alexander Shipkova, a BNF member interviewed by telephone from Minsk, said Ilyukhin's comments were seen by the BNF rank-and-file as a threat from Lukashenko, communicated via his allies in Moscow. "This is an old KGB trick, to predict that the CIA will kill someone and then to kill them and say, 'See!'"


Ilyukhin's claims -- which he reiterated Thursday in a long interview to Sovietskaya Rossia, a party newspaper -- have been denied by U.S. officials.


Lukashenko's chief of staff Mikhail Myasnikovich, in Moscow on Thursday, told Interfax that Minsk appreciated Ilyukhin's vigilance.


Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, meanwhile, leapt forward Thursday to claim he was Ilyukhin's source on the CIA scenario. "Zhirinovsky was right for the third time!" trumpeted a press release from his Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday. "We will continue to track the dirty activities of the CIA against Lukashenko and to notify all Slav-patriots of them."


Lukashenko has also antagonized the West since he won a landslide election victory in 1994 on a crime and corruption fighting platform. He angered the United States by refusing to apologize for an incident where Belarus downed a hot-air balloon that strayed onto its territory, killing the American enthusiasts on board. He has also gone back on pledges to make Belarus nuclear-free.


Economically, he has criticized the modest free-market reform efforts of one of his predecessors, Stanislav Shushkevich, and has reversed most of them since in office, leading the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to halt lending.


On Thursday, Lukashenko's economic adviser, Pyotr Kapitulo, told Reuters the government was now so cash-strapped that it would have to resort to printing money to meet expenses, despite the inherent inflationary dangers. movements -- from the nationalist BNF to the Belarussian Communist Party -- into an anti-Lukashenko coalition.


The conflict in Belarus has been building since the spring, when Lukashenko's strong support of integration with Russia, including retaining Russian troops on Belarussian soil, led to clashes on the streets of Minsk between Belarussian nationalist demonstrators and police. Lukashenko responded by arresting hundreds of protesters, journalists who covered the events and anti-government leaders.


Two weeks ago, Lukashenko made an open grab for power, demanding that the Supreme Soviet -- a one-house parliament with whom he has often fought -- amend the constitution to extend his term from five to seven years, or until 2001.


He also called for the creation of an upper legislative house whose members would be presidential appointees, and warned the Supreme Soviet that if lawmakers refused his demands, he would bypass them with a national referendum.


According to the opposition, the next step will be a state of emergency, abrogating the constitution.


BNF spokesmen said Thursday the political atmosphere in Minsk was tense following the request Tuesday of party leader Zenon Poznyak and party press secretary Sergei Naumchik for asylum.


Naumchik and Poznyak -- a Soviet-era dissident famous for his grim determination to dig up mass graves and to catalog the victims of Stalin's repressions -- were visiting Washington D.C. at the time, and their cause has won the attention of U.S. congressmen.


Belarussian authorities say Poznyak is wanted for questioning as a witness to anti-government rallies in March and April. But the BNF's Krivorot said other prominent BNF members, invited to police headquarters to give testimony, have been arrested and charged with crimes immediately upon arrival.


Throughout his two-year reign, Lukashenko, a former collective farm chairman, has worked at two seemingly contradictory goals: to expand the power of his office while surrendering the country's national sovereignty to Russia.


After a brief flirt with the red-and-white Belarussian flag, Lukashenko restored the national symbols of the Soviet Union and sought reunion with Russia. Although he occasionally speaks Belarussian, he makes a political point of speaking Russian in most public appearances.


This nostalgia for the Soviet Union has given the drama unfolding in Belarus resonances for Russian politics, where Lukashenko has attracted the fervid sympathy of key communist party leaders.


Russia's Communist Party -- which has developed a strong nationalist strain -- has approved of Lukashenko's desire for Soviet-style reintegration, under which Minsk would inevitably be Moscow's junior partner.


Supporting their ally Lukashenko, the Communist Party has blamed the flare of political emotion in once-sleepy Belarus on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.


According to Viktor Ilyukhin, a prominent Communist and the chairman of the Duma's security committee, the CIA plans to assassinate "one or two" members of Lukashenko's opposition, and then to blame the killings on Lukashenko.


Alexander Shipkova, a BNF member interviewed by telephone from Minsk, said Ilyukhin's comments were seen by the BNF rank and file as a threat from Lukashenko, communicated via his allies in Moscow. "This is an old KGB trick, to predict that the CIA will kill someone and then to kill them and say, 'See!'"


Ilyukhin's claims -- which he reiterated Thursday in a long interview to Sovietskaya Rossiya, a party newspaper -- have been denied by U.S. officials.


Lukashenko's chief of staff Mikhail Myasnikovich, in Moscow Thursday, told Interfax that Minsk appreciated Ilyukhin's vigilance.


Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, meanwhile, leapt forward Thursday to claim he was Ilyukhin's source on the CIA scenario. "Zhirinovksy was right for the third time!" trumpeted a pruws release from his Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday. "We will continue to track the dirty activities of the CIA against Lukashenko and to notify all Slav-patriots of them."


Lukashenko has also antagonized the West since he won a landslide election victory in 1994 on a crime and corruption fighting platform.


He angered the United States by refusing to apologize for an incident where Belarus downed a hot-air balloon that strayed onto its territory, killing the American enthusiasts on board. He has also gone back on pledges to make Belarus nuclear-free.


Economically, he has criticized the modest free-market reform efforts of one of his predecessors, Stanislav Shushkevich, and has reversed most of them since in office, leading the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to halt lending.


On Thursday, Lukashenko's economic adviser, Pyotr Kapitulo, told Reuters the government was now so cash-strapped that it would have to resort to printing money to meet expenses, despite the inherent inflationary dangers.