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Belarus: A Brewing Political Crisis

Prague, 29 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A broad alliance of Belarusian political parties yesterday warned President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that he will face impeachment unless he complies with the constitution.

Meeting in Minsk, leaders of 13 parties and groups that included the Communists, the Social Democrats, the Agrarian Party and the United Civic Party demanded that Lukashenka annuls a number of decrees curbing civil rights and enhancing presidential powers.

Lukashenka has repeatedly issued decrees on important political and economic matters, depriving the parliament of any influence over government operations. Belarus' Constitutional Court has ruled sixteen of the most important decrees unconstitutional.

The parties said that Lukashenka must revoke these decrees by September 15, or they will start proceedings to dismiss him from office. Taken together, the parties control more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament -- a sufficient number to depose the president.

The warning represents the latest, and probably the most serious, challenge by the country's politicians to the president. Last week, the same alliance issued a statement pledging to do "everything legally possible" to stop Lukashenka's efforts to expand his powers.

But Lukashenka remains unrepentant. Speaking recently with a Western reporter, Lukashenka said that he was "just too democratic" in dealing with politicians and other opponents.

Giving an example of the "democratic" methods of government, Lukashenka said that he plans to call a referendum this fall (November 7) to extend his term from five to seven years and enlarge his powers. Existing laws do not give him the authority to do so as only the parliament is empowered to call referenda. But Lukashenka was unfazed. He said he would dissolve the parliament if it refused to follow his order, although this is also unconstitutional.

And he reiterated his often-repeated threat to cancel parliamentary runoff election scheduled for November. Lukashenka controls spending and may easily block the vote by refusing to provide the necessary funding. The elections "bring no good and lead to nothing," he said, showing an apparent disdain for parliamentary and elective institutions.

Lukashenka's boastful statements have only energized his opponents. Last week, they insisted that the runoff be held as scheduled. Yesterday they proposed to call a referendum of their own in which they would ask the public whether it supports the parliament or the president.

Last year Lukashenka won public support in a special referendum on forging close ties to Russia. But subsequently a large sector of the population took part in parliamentary elections despite Lukashenka's open appeals for a boycott.

More recently, Belarus' large cities have been shaken by mass demonstrations against the president and his methods. Still, Lukashenka seems to be enjoying popularity in the countryside. And he remains determined to put down his critics.

But the opposition is growing restive and increasingly resolved to force a change in the method of government. The country is clearly and almost inevitably approaching another serious political crisis.