Belarus's opposition parties have stepped up their campaign against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, urging the West this week to impose economic and political sanctions and backing unions' calls for national protests. The protest call comes after authorities in Belarus recently opened several new criminal cases against top businessmen and government opponents.
Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two months ago, flush from his autumn re-election victory, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka pledged to imprison at least 15 prominent business leaders, accusing them of sabotaging the country's economy. Lukashenka is well on the way toward keeping his promise.
The first executive to be arrested was Leanid Kaluhin, director of the country's largest refrigerator factory. He was charged with abuse of office, illegal business practices, forgery, and embezzlement. Several more factory directors were soon detained, including the head of Belarusian Railways and the former head of the Belavtomaz heavy construction equipment giant.
This week, Mikhail Lyavonau, head of Belarus's largest tractor producer -- which employs 19,000 people -- was detained on suspicion of abuse of power and negligence. The authorities accuse Lyavonau of causing at least $4 million in financial harm to the state budget.
What is driving this wave of arrests, and why has Lukashenka targeted the once-coddled managers of the country's largest state enterprises?
Theories abound, but there seems to be agreement among opposition politicians and independent commentators that with these latest arrests, Lukashenka may be trying to kill two birds with one stone -- deflecting blame for the worsening economic situation while ridding himself of potential political opponents.
Alyaksandr Yakovlev, former deputy director of the Minsk Automobile Factory, fled to Poland one and a half years ago, where he is seeking political asylum. The Belarusian authorities are demanding his extradition on economic crime charges. Warsaw is currently weighing whether to honor the request.
Yakovlev tells RFE/RL that Lukashenka is using industry managers as scapegoats for his citizens' declining living standards: "How are you going to explain to people that their lives haven't improved? It's very simple. You say, 'You're not getting a good salary because your factory director or the deputy director is stealing. He's a thief and has stolen your money and that's why you, the worker, are not getting your salary.' And this is understandable to a worker because the system we lived in under socialism taught people that everyone was stealing and people accepted this as normal. A factory director? Well, God himself gave him free rein to steal!"
Alyaksandr Potupa, president of the Belarus Union of Businessmen, says the real reason for falling living standards is the fact that Belarus's factories do not produce any goods that can compete on world markets. Most production is shipped to Russia, often at prices that are below cost. As a result, no new money is received that can be invested in upgrading machinery and equipment. As the government prints more money, inflation grows, and the economy sinks deeper into crisis.
Potupa says that, under these circumstances, Lukashenka is keen to head off any public protests and that his goal, above all, is: "The mass frightening of political and social activists and economic leaders...."
Vasil Lyavonau, a former Belarusian minister of agriculture, says that because opposition parties have shown themselves to be ineffectual and unable to threaten Lukashenka's position, it is the directors of the country's large Soviet-era enterprises who could pose a future political challenge. Lyavonau says many of these directors realize the dire shape the economy is in.
"This is today the main opposition for the government. Directors see where things are going. They see the catastrophe. Directors have to think. They live and work here, and they have children and relatives to think of."
As with almost all political and economic issues in Belarus, there is also a Russian angle. Some observers point to government privatization efforts and say the removal of key factory directors is a way to ensure those privatizations proceed according to plan.
Viktar Ivashkevich is deputy chairman of the opposition Belarus Popular Front. "I believe Lukashenka is planning a soft privatization of industrial enterprises and it's necessary to put these directors in their place so they don't think of taking any measures to influence this privatization."
Russian businesses could be important players in any major privatizations. As Potupa notes, with state coffers nearly empty, Lukashenka is once again turning to Moscow: "There is no money, so we have to pay with our sovereignty. This is strongly determining the whole political and economic course of the country."
Lukashenka is taking no chances. Next on the agenda is a new drive to shape public opinion. Last week, Belarus's president ordered the creation of "information and advisory" groups for what he terms "mass propaganda work among the population."
According to the presidential directive, group members will be tasked with appearing at factories, military installations, and educational institutions to lecture on political, social and economic issues.
(Bohdan Andrusyshyn and Vital Taras of RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report.)