Prague, 25 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Both Russia and the West looked on in impotence this weekend as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka -- defying Parliament and the Constitutional Court -- evidently succeeded in ramming through a referendum to amend the Belarus constitution to grant him what the opposition says are dictatorial powers. Western commentary follows. Western writers also focused on a refugee crisis in Zaire.
LONDON TIMES: Lukashenka's new powers turn Belarus into a dictatorship
"A comfortable victory seemed assured for President Lukashenka last night in a referendum to grant him sweeping new powers, which effectively will turn the former Soviet Republic of Belarus into a dictatorship," Richard Beeston writes from Minsk today in an analysis.
The Times writer continues: "Criticism of the Belarus leader has had little or no effect in the past and the West is largely powerless to influence the leadership in Minsk, particularly since efforts by the International Monetary Fund to reform the economy broke down this year. The only country that exerts any influence here is Russia, which maintains close political and economic ties with Belarus."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Open political debate does not exist in Belarus
In today's edition of the British newspaper, Matthew Kaminski writes: "The potential for widening conflict in Belarus has heightened anxiety in neighboring Poland and Lithuania, both of which crave stability as they seek EU and NATO membership."
Kaminski says: "The president's evident charisma and honed political instincts have kept him popular in isolated Belarus, where nostalgia for the Soviet era runs deeper than in most republics that can draw on a national identity." The writer adds: "Open political debate does not exist. Mr. Lukashenka dominates the media, silences the free press, and jails political opponents."
NEW YORK TIMES: Belarus has the reputation of a country frozen in time
Michael R. Gordon wrote from Moscow Saturday in an analysis: "Widely denounced by Western nations, the referendum has ignited fears that it is a step toward totalitarianism in the heart of Europe." Gordon said: "From the beginning, Russia has had conflicting interests in Belarus. On the one hand, Russia welcomed the ardently pro-Moscow policies of Lukashenka, who has pressed for a confederation between his increasingly poor nation and Russia. But his drive for power raised the prospect of instability on Russia's doorstep.
"Even before the recent crisis, Belarus had the reputation of a country frozen in time. Privatization has stopped and the International Monetary Fund has suspended its loans. But in recent weeks political tensions have intensified."
LONDON GUARDIAN: There may be little the divided opposition can do in Belarus
James Meeks writes today from Moscow in an analysis: The Russian leadership, the only outside force able to put pressure on the warring politicians in Belarus, drew back in despair yesterday to await the inevitable clash after the controversial constitutional referendum." Meeks says: "Parliament's own questions, calling for the virtual dissolution of the presidency, were not expected to win backing. Most MPs, and the head of the constitutional court, oppose the president."
He writes: "The referendum is really on one issue -- the character of the 42-year-old head of state, a former Red Army political officer and state farm director elected in a 1993 landslide. His opponents believe him to be a populist demagogue." Meeks adds: "Apart from a demonstration by 2,000 anti-referendum protesters in central Minsk yesterday, the republic was quiet. There may be little the divided opposition can do."
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Lukashenka is expected to easily carry the vote
The paper carries today an analysis by Matthew Brzezinski, who writes: "Mr. Lukashenka told television viewers on Saturday that deputies remind him of animals in a zoo and that all bets were off. He said that he would consider the results of the plebiscite binding and act accordingly."
The writer says: "Mr. Lukashenka, a former collective farm boss who enjoys broad support among ordinary citizens in this impoverished nation of 10 million, plans to use (yesterday's) vote to ram through a new constitution that would allow him to extend his term in office, pack the courts, staff election committees and appoint deputies to a redrawn Parliament."
Brzezinski's analysis says: "With units of his most loyal troops posted outside central electoral offices, and his iron grip over the media which has gone into propaganda overdrive showing viewers exactly how to answer the seven referendum questions, Mr. Lukashenko is expected to easily carry the vote."
BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: Lukashenka wants to turn the country into a classic Soviet republic
Foreign Editor Ulrich Ehrenreich commented yesterday in the Danish newspaper: "Among the former Soviet republics, Belarus is the one with the worst state of the economy and the least successful transition to democracy. Its President Alexander Lukashenka wants to be a dictator -- and he is well on the way to it."
Ehrenreich adds: "Since 1994, President Alexander Lukashenka has not tried to conceal his plans to turn the country into a classic Soviet republic of the kind we hought had been thrown into the dustbin of history." The commentary calls Lukashenka "The Mad Man in Minsk," and says: "Relatively speaking, a political demagogue like he is does not have a hard time in a state where the economy is on the verge of collapse and where there is a psychological need for strong words from a strong man."
LONDON INDEPENDENT: Nuclear missiles were to be transferred to Russia next week
In a news analysis in today's, Helen Womack writes: "Moscow and the rest of the world can only watch now to see how the 10 million people of Belarus vote -- the result is expected today -- and how Mr. Lukashenko acts on their verdict. NATO, which the Belarus leader once called a 'dreadful monster,' has had a particular interest in developments because the republic, wedged between Russia and Poland, still retains some Soviet-era nuclear missiles, although they are due to be transferred to Russia for dismantling next week."
DIE WELT: Events confound the imagination
Looking a continent southward to Zaire, Hans-Peter Schwarz commented Saturday in the German newspaper: "Events in Central Africa at the moment once again confound the imagination. The Western governments had only just managed to agree on a humanitarian intervention. But now we have to praise the Clinton government after all, for hesitating over the operation for so long. For reality there has overwhelmed all the carefully woven plans. A process of almost mythical power has been taking place since the middle of last week."
He wrote: "A problem of appalling dimensions which appeared insoluble for two years on end now suddenly seems to have become solvable. More than 500,000 Hutus are simply returning to their villages, a journey on foot of just a few days."
FINANCIAL TIMES: Western powers should thank Zairean rebel forces
The paper says today in an editorial: "Western powers which ten days ago were all set to send troops to eastern Zaire have good reasons to be thankful for the dynamism of the Zairean rebel forces and their Rwandan backers." The newspaper says: "Those who think they can sort things out by sending in troops, or that those troops could easily confine themselves to a 'humanitarian' mission without getting involved in the war, have been given persuasive reasons to think again."