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Belarus: President Lukashenka Toughens Rule

Prague, 27 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka yesterday promised his countrymen a further tightening of authoritarian methods.

Addressing regional administrators in a nationally broadcast tele-conference, Lukashenka said people keep asking him to strengthen his one-man rule. "People are saying: Mr President, give us dictatorship, give us Stalin's times," Lukashenka was quoted as saying.

And he intends to comply with those "requests." During the tele-conference, Lukashenka promised to make surprise trips to different parts of the country to ensure work, threatening to impose "harsh" punishment on anyone found failing in his/her duties, and warned against shadowy "enemies abroad," conspiring against him and his government.

The conference focused on a grain-sowing campaign likely to be unveiled at the beginning of April. Effective agricultural production is regarded as vital for the impoverished country that has suffered from years of mismanagement and economic decline.

But Lukashenka's pronouncements went beyond the economic matters. Instead, they dealt with methods of government and ways of dealing with problems.

The accent is on toughness. All those negligent of duties, those responsible for incorrect economic reporting and those slow in producing are to be punished. "The verdicts will be the harshest possible," Lukashenka said.

There is nothing new in this approach. During his years in power, Lukashenka has suspended labor unions, muzzled the media, dissolved the parliament and the country's high court, and recurrently used force to put down popular protest demonstrations.

In a recent incident, more than 100 people were arrested last Sunday, following a public demonstration in Minsk. Many more were physically maltreated by truncheon-wielding police, and an American diplomat was expelled from the country.

Lukashenka sees such protests as a result of apparently subversive activities of Belarus' "enemies," both domestic and foreign. "Belarus is being strangled by the West," he told the conference, adding "and by someone from the East."

He stopped short of defining the Western "enemies," but the expulsion of the U.S. diplomat prompted an expulsion of a Belarusian diplomat from Washington, and the ambassadors of each country was recalled "for consultations." The United States has recently suspended its $40 million annual aid to Belarus. During recent months Lukashenka's methods have been criticized by several West European countries, and the Council of Europe has called for a major changes in governmental policies.

Lukashenka was only a little more specific about the "enemies" from the East. He was reported to have said that in Poland and the Czech Republic operate "anti-Belarusian" groups. He said those groups have been set up with the concurrence of two exiled leaders of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, Zenon Poznyak and Sergei Naumchik. Both men asked and obtained political asylum in the United States last year.

Lukashenka used the occasion to admonish local administrators from western regions of the country with large Polish ethnic minorities to use "harsh and decisive actions" to contain any sign of subversive activities there. A leader of the Polish ethnic group in Belarus, Tadeusz Gawin, told the Polish media yesterday that Lukashenka's insinuations are "baseless."

There is a strong possibility that Lukashenka is using threats and warnings to intimidate opponents and mobilize ordinary people for greater productive efforts in the approaching agricultural campaign. But it is equally plausible that his behavior is quite natural, for, this man who has already prized Adolf Hitler as an effective leader in the past and has repeatedly professed nostalgia for Soviet times.

Whether this will have a desired effect on the country is not certain. It can solidify his support in the rural and backward areas of the country, among the population clearly longing for the "order" of the old Stalinist era. But it also may mobilize his opponents and critics.

One may wonder as well whether Lukashenka's "toughness," and an admitted penchant for authoritarianism is not likely to affect the planned movement toward unity with Russia. Moscow has recently criticized Lukashenka's brutal treatment of Russian news correspondents in Minsk. (A Russian tv reporter lost his accreditation and is likely to be expelled.)

But Russia's minister in charge of CIS cooperation, Aman Tuleyev, told Russian reporters yesterday that Belarus' current problems are merely an effect of "a planned provocation" designed to complicate plans for unification.

Lukashenka and Russia's President Boris Yeltsin are to meet in Moscow next week April 2 to advance the movement toward a complete integration of the two countries.