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Belarus President and Parliament Again On Collision Course

Prague, Feb. 21 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the country's parliament are once again on a collision course.

The latest conflict concerns the appointment of a new central bank head, but its implications go much further, touching on the very essence of Belarus' system of government.

Last week, Lukashenka named his close political ally, Tamara Vinnikova, to chair the board of directors of the National Bank of Belarus. She was to replace Stanislau Bahdankevich, who had left the bank three months ago under pressure from Lukashenka. Until now, the board has been led by acting chairman Nikolai Kuzmich.

But in making the appointment, Lukashenka failed to seek approval of the move by the parliament. And this is required by the Belarusian constitution.

The parliamentary leaders immediately protested Lukashenka's move. Former speaker and declared presidential foe Stanislau Shushkevich termed it "a slap in the face of the constitution and the parliament." First deputy speaker Vasily Novikov said that it showed "a disrespect for the parliament." And the communist party leader Sergei Kalyakin hinted at possible impeachment of the head of state. "The president himself is pushing us toward this," Kalyakin said. The communists control more than 20 percent of the seats in the parliament.

The conflict has brought into the open the latent struggle for power between the admittedly authoritarian president and the parliament.

Openly bent on increasing his own powers, Lukashenka has long been disdainful of any form of parliamentarism. Ever since winning the presidential election in 1993, Lukashenka has frequently and repeatedly poured scorn on the parliament, issuing instead his own decrees in violation of the constitution.

Moreover, Lukashenka has recurrently ignored rulings of the country's Constitutional Court that declared his decrees illegal, suspended protesting labor unions and muzzled the media.

Lukashenka suffered a setback when a large turnout in the last year's parliamentary elections (November) halted his plans to impose a direct presidential rule.

But this might have only temporarily slowed down Lukashenka's drive to augment his power. Last month he suggested at a closed-door session of the parliament that the Constitutional Court be disbanded.

Lukashenka has also proposed a nationwide referendum on constitutional changes which could make Russian an official state language alongside the Belarusian language.

This corresponded to the president's declared intention to integrate Belarus with Russia. Making this the main goal of his presidency, Lukashenka was again recently reported by Russian media to have assured Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov of his "unswerving policy of reintegration with Russia."

But the movement toward integration has been slow. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Senko has recently complained that his country's customs union with Russia has so far been ineffective. He said that Russia continued to sell its energy resources, primarily gas and oil, to Belarus at "world prices and not Russian domestic rates" as provided in the customs union treaty. Lukashenka is to visit Moscow shortly to discuss closer ties. The parliament is unlikely to oppose that move. But it wants to play a major role in all policy decisions. That much was shown by a recent remark by Belarusian parliament speaker Semyon Sharetsky, who has pointedly noted that any decisions on referenda remain "the prerogative of the parliament." Sharetsky has also opposed Lukashenka's suggestion on disbanding the Constitutional Court.

And yesterday, the parliament voted to reject Lukashenka's appointment of Vinnikova. It reconfirmed instead Nikolai Kuzmich as acting head of the central bank's board of directors.

Lukashenka is certain to fight this decision. Already two days ago he told the bank's managers that he was determined to impose direct control over the bank's operations.

He is unlikely to back down now. But neither is the parliament. And the conflict between the president and the legislature is to continue, seriously endangering any prospect for political stability in the post-Soviet republic.