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Russia/Belarus: Lukashenka Visits Moscow As Tensions Build In Belarus

By Stephanie Baker and Jan de Weydenthal

Moscow, 17 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka met Russian President Boris Yeltsin at Barvikha rest house near Moscow yesterday to discuss integration between the two countries. But his visit was overshadowed by charges that he was building a dictatorship back home.

Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Yasterzhembsky said in a statement issued after the meeting that the two presidents focused on efforts to bring their two countries closer together. They also were said to have talked about the political situation in Belarus.

Lukashenka has been locked in a protracted feud with the Belarusian Parliament over the country's constitution. He has called for a referendum to be held on November 7 on a new constitution that would extend his term for another five years without election and expand his authority. But legislators are opposed, and have called for a referendum on November 24 asking the abolishment of the presidency and the creation of a parliamentary system.

Under the current constitution, only Parliament can call a referendum. But Lukashenka is planning a "popular assembly" to be attended by some 6,000 delegates chosen by the president from banks, industries and government-sponsored social organizations on Saturday to discuss the constitutional changes, in an apparent bid to get around the Parliament.

Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement on April 2 of this year to deepen political and economic ties. The accord called for the creation of supra-national institutions to boost economic and political integration between the two countries.

Lukashenka said at a press conference that followed his meeting with Yeltsin that the two had discussed the formation of a financial-industrial group focusing on joint oil-refining projects. He said he had asked Russia to supply oil refineries in Belarus with 300,000 tons of oil.

The Belarusian leader also met with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, and Defense Minister Igor Rodionov during his visit. He said his talks had centered on ways to coordinate the two countries' foreign and security policies. Lukashenka said that Belarus would honor its commitment to withdraw nuclear missiles stationed there to Russia. About 10 missiles still remain in Belarus.

Lukashenka steadfastly denied that his visit to Russia was designed to win Moscow's support in his ongoing argument with the Belarusian Parliament. Yeltsin's press service stopped short of providing any details on the political aspects of their talks, mentioning only that the two presidents had spoken about the need for peace and stability in Belarus.

A few weeks ago Yeltsin appealed to Lukashenka to find a compromise solution to domestic problems. But he also endorsed the idea of a constitutional referendum on expanding Lukashenka's powers in a telephone conversation prior to yesterday's visit.

Lukashenka said at the press conference that he "understood (from his talks with Yeltsin) that relations between the presidents of Russia and Belarus have not changed at all."

Lukashenka has been sharply criticized by Western governments and international institutions for cracking down on human rights and the free press. An estimated 200 people have been jailed since April in Belarus for taking part in demonstrations against his rule, including his policy of rebuilding links with Russia. Yesterday Belarusian police arrested several miners who were preparing to march on the capital Minsk to take part in a protest rally against Lukashenka's policies and methods of government.

Earlier this week, the ambassadors of Germany, Britain, France and Italy issued a joint demarche to protest Lukashenka's actions. Yesterday, Leni Fisher, head of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, said in a speech in Minsk that Lukashenka's actions "could split the nation." Fisher called on the president to respect the constitution.

At the end of August, Lukashenka sent a letter to the Council of Europe saying that Belarus "is actively seeking to cooperate with European structures" and hoped to be accepted into the Council "as soon as possible." Lukashenka also said in his letter that he was committed to the protection of human rights and that this commitment was behind the decision to seek the constitutional referendum.

But at his press conference in Moscow, Lukashenka lashed out at the Western critics saying, "I have had it up to here with these diplomatic procedures." He said that such criticism amounted to "interference in our internal affairs."

Lukashenka also complained about Russian journalists carrying out, what he called, "a disinformation campaign" about the situation in Belarus. All opposition Belarusian papers have been silenced by the government, while the domestic radio and television are firmly in the government's hands.

"Belarus is a sovereign and independent state," Lukashenka told the press conference. And he assured the press reporters: "Don't worry, there will be no totalitarian state or dictatorship in Belarus."