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Belarusian President Defiant As Political, Economic Tensions Mount

  • Robert Coalson

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks to lawmakers during his annual address in Minsk on April 21.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka speaks to lawmakers during his annual address in Minsk on April 21.

A stubborn and defiant President Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address before the Belarusian parliament, in what he described as "an unusual sociopolitical atmosphere."

Lukashenka's speech came as the country is still in shock following the April 11 terrorist bombing in the Minsk subway that left 13 dead and more than 200 injured. In addition, Belarus has been shaken by a severe economic crisis that has depleted foreign-currency reserves and prompted widespread speculation of an imminent currency devaluation.

And all this comes in the wake of last December's presidential election, which international observers and opposition politicians have condemned as fraudulent. Following an election-day protest in Minsk, Lukashenka's government launched a brutal crackdown and the trials of election-day demonstrators -- including several opposition politicians who ran against Lukashenka in the election -- are still being played out.

In addressing the subway bombing, Lukashenka said that despite the reported arrests and confessions of the main perpetrators, the hunt for a motive continued.

"I want to say frankly today that, as far as this terrorist act is concerned, we have yet to find any links to organized crime, or bandits, or politicians. We don't have any facts to accuse them," Lukashenka said. "But we are examining every possible lead."

Nonetheless, it was clear from the rest of his speech that he is focused on possible political motivations. Lukashenka said that "someone" is working to destabilize Belarus and undermine its sovereignty.

"It seems like someone is trying really hard to destabilize the situation in our country, create chaos, make people distrust their government," he said, "in order to use the existing problems as a noose to strangle our country, our independence, and make it possible to interfere in our internal affairs and dictate their will to the Belarusian people."

No More 'Tolerance'

Lukashenka blamed himself and his government for being excessively liberal in the conduct of the December 2010 presidential election and thus contributing to the current tension. He said he had warned earlier that it would be a mistake to allow opposition candidates to address voters on public television.

Lukashenka speaks before parliament.
"I warned you. I said: 'All right, if you want, we'll do that. We'll give them full freedom and democracy. But bear in mind that this will have consequences.' And on the other side of the screen, people were watching and thinking, 'We can do anything today,'" he said. "But sick people, including mentally ill people, who have not realized themselves in society, drew a different kind of conclusion from all that."

And the president showed no sign that he is in a mood for compromise, declaring that he was prepared to do what is necessary to prevent destabilization.

"Any fifth, sixth, or 25th column will be destroyed. And we have sufficient resources to do this," Lukashenka said. "And this has nothing to do with a dictator wanting to break society or set up some kind of dictatorship in the center of Europe."

The keys for getting through the present situation, he said, were "vigilance" and "unity."

Opposition Trials

Lukashenka attributed the country's economic crisis to a combination of the global economic situation, increasingly costly commodities, and bad weather. He blamed the shortage of hard currency on high oil, gas, and steel prices, as well as chiding the public for importing too many private automobiles. He predicted further price rises.

Meanwhile, the trials of protesters arrested in connection with the December 19, 2010, election-day demonstration in Minsk continue.

On April 26, the trial of Zmitser Bandarenka, a businessman and campaign worker for opposition presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau, will begin. He faces up to three years in prison if convicted of "contributing to public disorder."

On April 27, Sannikau himself will appear in court, facing up to 15 years in prison for "organizing mass riots." The same day, the trials of 15 other opposition figures will also begin.

Four other former presidential candidates -- in addition to Sannikau -- are expected to face trial in the near future.

with contributions from RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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