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Belarus: Western Officials Condemn Referendum

By Walter Stankevich and Kitty McKinsey

Minsk, 26 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Western officials yesterday lined up to condemn Sunday's referendum in Belarus as the country's government-controlled electoral commission announced the passage of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's controversial proposals by an overwhelming margin.

The Central Electoral Commission reported that 70 percent of eligible voters endorsed Lukashenka's referendum questions, which will broaden presidential powers at the expense of Parliament and lengthen the head of state's term of office. Since turnout was reported at 84 percent, that would mean 84 percent of those who actually voted supported Lukashenka's referendum.

But several European bodies, including the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the vote as neither free nor fair. United States State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the referendum was "deprived of legitimacy" because the opposition was systemnatically deprived of the chance to present its views. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin refrained from comment, saying the vote was an "internal matter" for the Belarusian people.

At a news conference in Minsk today, Belarus parliament speaker Semyon Sharetsky denounced the referendum as "a farce." He questioned the vote count and appealed to the international community not to allow what he termed Lukashenka's "dictatorship" to strengthen.

President Lukashenka dismissed his opponents' criticism and celebrated his victory as an "honest expression of the people." He said he would not dissolve parliament unilaterally, but he added he would use his new powers to turn it into a new bi-cameral body.