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Dealing With Belarus' Lukashenka

Prague, July 11 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrives today in Paris for an official three-day visit. It is a controversial visit.

Lukashenka is a rather unusual head of state. Elected two years ago (June 1994) in a contest with a pro-Moscow politician Vyatcheslav Kabitch, Lukashenka has since then done his utmost to destroy the country's fragile independence and take it back into a close union with Russia.

Born in Belarus, he refuses to use his mother tongue and insists on Russian as the principal language of business and instruction. He repeatedly and emphatically proclaims his disdain for Belarusian history, culture and traditions. He sees himself as the leader of the Slavs, but the russified ones.

And he either ignores or puts down any opposition to these views. During the last two years Lukashenka has suspended labor unions, muzzled the media and dealt harshly with opposition groups.

Openly admiring some aspects of Adolf Hitler's rule, Lukashenka professes preference for authoritarian methods of rule. Disregarding the parliament, he has ruled by decrees. Ignoring the existing legal system - he has repeatedly brushed off the country's Supreme Court rulings nullifying his decrees - Lukashenka has increasingly relied on force as the main instrument of rule.

During the last three months alone, Belarusian police has recurrently clashed with, and forcibly dispersed, mass demonstrations in protest against Lukashenka's policies. Opposition leaders have been either arrested or forced to flee the country. Hundreds of ordinary Belarusians have been detained and many more have been mistreated by the police.

Economic reforms have been stopped. Financial institutions have been subjected to centralized government control. Inefficient kolkhozes and money-losing industries have been artificially propped up with government subsidies. Standard of living has plummeted and the economy stagnates.

But Lukashenka vows to stay on course. His course.

But what is this course of his? Vincuk Viacorka, a leader of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, wrote yesterday in the French newspaper Le Monde that Lukashenka's course follows "a curious ideological hybrid construed of communism, nostalgic yearning for the Soviet Union and an anti-western orthodox Russian chauvinism."

Another French newspaper, Le Figaro, today suggested that Lukashenka is just one of those "accidental politicians, brought to power during the time of problems and difficulties, and susceptible to turn toward authoritarian methods at any time."

Figaro also quoted an unnamed French diplomat, who noted the difficulty of dealing with this sort of politicians because "one does not have any idea what constitutes their term of reference and what they are likely to do tomorrow. They are unpredictable."

But one has to deal with them. The French officials were said to have argued that no country should refuse to "maintain a dialogue" with another country, irrespectively of the internal politics of such interlocutors. French officials say that this is particularly important in the case of Belarus, a country "in the very heart of Europe."

Similar arguments were used by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who visited Belarus three months ago. And they are likely to justify other countries' contacts with Lukashenka as well.

But the sour political aftertaste remains. And it is likely to linger, because there is little that can be done to change the situation.