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Belarus: Opposition Grows As President Moves To Expand Powers

Prague, 26 August 1996 (RFE/RL) - Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka plans to summon by decree a "Congress of the Belarusian People" to discuss current political issues -- an announcement which appears to be a direct response to a recent decision by the country's political parties, labor unions and public organizations to oppose the president's increasingly authoritarian policies.

Lukashenka told a Radio Minsk reporter today that the congress will be attended by some 6,000 people. His decree will define the objectives and the date for the gathering.

Last week, more than 100 representatives of various public organizations, including leaders of all recognized political parties, issued a joint statement pledging to do everything legally possible to stop Lukashenka's efforts to expand his power. In particular, the statement called for ensuring that parliamentary runoff elections are held as scheduled in November.

Under the constitution, Belarusian parliament consists of 260 deputies. Only 195 deputies were elected in last year's vote. The November runoffs are to fill the remaining seats.

Lukashenka actively opposed the 1995 vote, professing an open disdain for the parliament as a political institution. He is also opposed to the planned runoffs and vowed to scrap the vote.

To this end, Lukashenka announced last week plans to hold at the beginning of November -- some two weeks before the scheduled runoffs -- a referendum extending his power over the parliament.

The initial announcement of the planned referendum was sketchy on details. But Lukashenka has already hinted that he intends to extend the presidential term from five to seven years. He also wants the authority to appoint some members of parliament, the constitutional court and the election commission. All these institutions have been consistently critical of the president's manner of government.

Lukashenka's plans to convoke the "Congress of the Belarusian People" is a move to counter the opposition. The "congress" is clearly not an institutional body. It may simply be an ad hoc gathering of Lukashenka's sympathizers and other "ordinary people," who are to be convoked to give support to the president's plans. It strongly suggests a sheer propaganda exercise.

Lukashenka may feel the need for this type of support. During recent months, opposition to his dictatorial rule has been steadily growing. In March and April there were mass demonstration against Lukashenka's policies, particularly his drive to unite the country with Russia.

The demonstrations were suppressed by force. Numerous activists were maltreated by the police and several opposition leaders were detained. Offices of opposition groups have been ransacked. Critical media have been muzzled. Protests by the parliament have been disregarded. And judicial verdicts invalidating Lukashenka's decrees have been ignored by the government.

Two prominent opposition activists, Zenon Poznyak and Sergei Naumchik from the Belarusian Popular Front, were forced to flee the country. Last week, both men were granted political asylum in the United States. This decision was condemned by the Belarusian government as "arising amazement and regret."

The announcement by the country's main public organizations to join forces to defend the current constitution constitutes a major challenge to Lukashenka's authoritarian ambitions.

It suggests an expansion of the opposition movement to include nationalists, economic liberals and even communists. And it shows a growing determination by many groups to arrest the country's apparent decline toward dictatorship.

The U.S. granting of asylum to Poznyak and Naumchik provides a testimony to the growing international recognition that Lukashenka's policies and methods amount to active persecution of his critics.

Lukashenka seems immune to criticism. He insists that Belarus be integrated into a Russia-centered confederation. In domestic matters he relies on the vast network of repressive institutions. He assumes that the largely rural population will support him in a referendum as it did last year, when his proposals for russification of his country gained an overwhelming acceptance. His spokesman, Sergei Posokhov, said last week that the president intends to stick to his plans to expand his powers.