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Belarus: Analysis From Washington--The Lessons Of Minsk

Washington, 26 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decision to hold and win a referendum expanding his own powers over the objections of both his Parliament and the international community, highlights three developments that affect not only Belarus but other parts of the post-Soviet space as well.

First, ever more people in this region clearly believe that they face a choice between freedom and order. And given the difficulties of the transition from communism to democracy and free markets, ever more are opting for those who promise order.

Second, driven by both their own problems and the sense that no one east or west appears to them to be interested in coming to their aid, these populations are increasingly responding to nationalist appeals.

And third, as the failure of Moscow's effort to mediate the political crisis in Minsk demonstrates, the ability of outside powers to do anything about these trends is extremely limited, and actions intended to calm the situation may quickly backfire.

Each of these trends poses serious challenges both for the countries immediately involved and for an international community that hopes to promote democracy, free markets and stability.

The first trend -- the notion that people must choose between freedom and order -- reflects the tendency of people in the region to blame their current problems, including massive disorder, on democracy itself rather than on the Soviet inheritance.

This attitude reflects the unrealistic expectations many people in these countries had about the speed and ease of the transition.

It also reflects the tendency of many states to focus on economic reform rather than on the strengthening of political institutions necessary to channel the new economic forces.

As successor regimes, such as the one in Belarus, have shown themselves incapable of providing either a better life quickly or even maintaining minimal public order, political figures, like Lukashenka, who advocate an authoritarian solution inevitably gain support.

The second trend -- the shift toward nationalism -- is an outgrowth of the first. Few people in these countries want to restore all aspects of the communist past. But many more would like the stability and security that past seemed to provide even if at the cost of some freedoms they now enjoy.

And their sense that no one, not the West and not Moscow, is really interested in helping them, a sense that they must stand up for themselves against the world, is also powering the nationalist upsurge in Belarus.

On the one hand, such nationalist feelings may have the effect of solidifying the independence of these countries: Belarusians and even Lukashenka himself seem increasingly committed to their maintaining or even expanding their independence, to the surprise of many in both Moscow and the West.

It is almost certainly no accident that on the day after the referendum, the Belarusian president announced that his country wanted to join the European Union, a goal very much out of step with his past statements about integration with Russia.

But on the other hand, such a nationalist upsurge may destabilize the entire region. Regimes which use nationalism as their legitimating principle are often oppressive at home and a threat to their neighbors as well. Moreover, the rise of nationalism in one country may help to generate a countervailing nationalism in another.

The third trend in this region highlighted by events in Minsk -- the increasing inability of outside powers to affect things -- may ultimately have the most serious consequences.

Not surprisingly, the West had virtually no influence on developments in Belarus because few Western countries have focused on that country or have significant assets on the ground.

But Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who tried last week to broker a compromise in Minsk, unintentionally called attention to the limits on Moscow's ability to intervene successfully, even when it appears to have enormous leverage.

Not only did both the Belarusian Parliament and the Belarusian president back away from the deal, but even more significant for the future, some demonstrators in Minsk on Sunday carried signs reading "Moscow, Hands Off" -- and this in a country many had expected to be dominated if not reabsorbed by the Russian Federation.

Five years ago, the West had enormous influence in these countries because of the expectations these states had about the future. Now that influence has declined.

More recently, Moscow appeared able to get its way on many key issues and even to portray itself to the West as a capable manager of the entire region.

But the events in Minsk this weekend demonstrate that Belarus and many of the other countries in this region are behaving increasingly like countries willing to ignore outside powers when it suits them.

And that message from Minsk could turn out to be the most important of all.