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Belarussian Leaders Move To Ban Opposition Group

Prague, June 5 (RFE/RL) - The government of Belarus yesterday launched formal proceedings to ban a leading opposition group, the Belarusian Popular Front.

The move took the form of a letter from Justice Minister Valentin Sukalo to the Popular Front, warning it against staging "unsanctioned rallies and gatherings," issuing "appeals for unlawful actions," and "hampering the work" of government investigators.

This was the second time that the government warned the Popular Front. On May 31, the group was warned by the Prosecutor-General's office against "disrupting" official investigations into anti-government demonstrations. The prosecutors also said they intended to ask the Justice Ministry to "halt the activity of the front" if it does not desist from those actions.

Under Belarusian law, two formal government warnings open the way legally to ban an offending group.

The Popular Front leaders have said that a request to do so might have already been sent by the government to Belarus' Supreme Court.

During the last two months, the Popular Front has organized - alongside other smaller opposition groups - more than five major demonstrations in the capital Minsk against policies conducted by the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The largest demonstration, on April 26 anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, brought about 50,000 people out onto the streets of Minsk and led to violent clashes with the police. On May 30, a score of people were injured and several dozen were arrested when the police suppressed another popular protest in the capital city.

Smaller rallies and demonstrations have taken place in other parts of the country, particularly in the cities of Mahileu and Vitsebsk.

In most cases, these rallies and demonstrations have been staged against Lukashenka's efforts to unite Belarus with Russia. Lukashenka, who openly favors restoration of the Soviet Union, signed a union treaty on April 2 with Moscow that was widely seen by the opposition as designed to end Belarus' independence.

But they were also organized in protest against Lukashenka's autocratic style of government. The president has been openly disdainful of any form of democracy. He has ruled by decree, repeatedly ignoring protests by the parliament. He has also suspended labor unions because they protested against his economic decisions. He has disregarded verdicts by the country's courts that invalidated his decrees. He has imposed strict control over the media, and has ordered strict controls of banks and private business.

The Popular Front has been at the forefront of the protest movement. It is the largest opposition group in the country, strongly supportive of a Belarusian national identity. It has been the principal victim of Lukashenka's suppression.

Two of Popular Front's leaders, Vyacheslav Sivchik and Yuri Khadyka, were kept for more than a month in jail following the April 26 demonstration. They were released only some ten days ago, and only after having staged a hunger strike in protest against their imprisonment. The Front's top leader, Zenon Poznyak, was forced to leave the country. Last week the Lukashenka government froze the group's bank accounts to deprive it of funding.

Lukashenka's methods have prompted criticism even from within the country's political establishment itself. Yesterday, parliamentary speaker Semeon Sharetsky, who until recently had been regarded as "a president's man," accused Lukashenka in a parliamentary speech of being "worse" than the totalitarian Soviet leaders of the past. There has so far been no reaction from the government.

But Foreign Minister Vladimir Senko said at a May 30 press conference in the Latvian capital Riga that Belarus is "committed to democracy and there are no reasons to doubt that commitment." Senko went on to say that Belarus has maintained democratic administrative institutions and emphasized that the street is not the place to tackle political problems. He added, however, that Belarus might suffer from negative "stereotypes" about its democracy.

President Lukashenka is vacationing in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.