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Belarus: Seeking Investment, Lukashenka Takes His Style To Asia

By Breffni O'Rourke and Alyaksandr Loukachouk

Minsk, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's current Asian tour is billed as a trip to attract foreign investment to Belarus. But economic analysts see that task as a difficult one, considering the state of near-collapse in Belarus's economy.

Lukashenka, who is now in the South Korean capital Seoul, is meeting businessmen and officials there. He will also be in Vietnam and China over the next five days.

The trip appears typical of Lukashenka's style of holding the reins of government closely in his own hands. Another recent example of his highly personal way of doing things was on view this month when it was reported that Lukashenka himself would begin spot checks on agricultural activity. He planned to move around the countryside by secret routes to surprise farmers who might be neglecting their duties.

As to the economy, Lukashenka is the main force behind preservation of the old centralised, state-run economic mechanisms, which are making impossible any renewal in Belarus. That country used to be known as the "assembly line of the USSR." Component parts were sent from all over the union to be assembled into a wide range of products, including trucks, tractors, machine tools and agricultural implements. There are also major facilities for semi-conductors, optics and electronic devices, including items for the Soviet space program. So Belarus has a reputation for skilled workers, at least as copiers if not as innovators.

But, some 70 percent of the high-tech and electronic items were made for the Soviet military machine, and with the demise of the Soviet Union that market has now been lost. The Soviet military used to also take many of the trucks and tractors produced in Belarus, so those plants too have languished with reduced order books in the new era.

Under Lukashenka, there is no privatization in sight, the old centralised command system still applies and inefficiency and overstaffing is rife, productivity is low. Hardly the atmosphere to attract big-scale investment, even from Asia's still-Communist countries, let alone from a powerhouse like South Korea.

Reports recently suggest Lukashenka has been actively seeking a way out of the threatening economic malaise.

Last month, he spoke of a new economic axis composed of Beijing, Moscow and Minsk. When approached by journalists, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Moscow said he knew nothing of the idea, and he dismissed it. A similarly unlikely trianglular grouping was suggested last week by officials in Minsk, who were quoted as referring to a Seoul-Kiev-Minsk axis.

Lukashenka is no longer welcome in the West because of his oppressive human rights policies, but relations with China are going forward. Belarus supports China when the awkward question of Beijing's human rights record is raised at the United Nations.