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Belarus: State TV's Coup Report Sets The Stage For Repression

Prague, 14 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Three days ago, on January 11, the Belarusian people were told that opponents of the current government were preparing a "coup d'etat." This could provide a stage for a new wave of repression against the government critics.

The "news" came from the state-controlled television. Its current affairs program, "Rezanans," reported that the opposition groups had prepared a "strategic plan" to stage a coup against the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"Rezanans" stopped short of identifying the source of its report. But it mentioned the names of to leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, Zianon Paznyak and Syamion Sharetsky, implying that they were primary instigators of the plot. "Rezanans" said that the plotters planned to collect millions of dollars to undermine and unseat the Lukashenka government.

The Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) is a coalition of anti-communist and nationalist groups opposed to Lukashenka's authoritarian methods and his policy of uniting Belarus with Russia. Paznyak left Belarus two years ago and currently resides in the United States as a political refugee. Sharetsky served as speaker in the parliament illegally dissolved by Lukashenka more than a year ago, after a referendum gave the president sweeping political powers.

BPF representatives in Belarus immediately refuted the "Rezanans" report. Acting BPF's leader Lyavon Barshchevsky called it "fantasy." BPF's spokesman Valery Buyval said that the report served to "prepare repression against dissidents." Russian correspondent for Interfax agency seemed to agree, reporting that the program could be seen as a signal for the government's repressive action. A Minsk-based unnamed Western diplomat told Reuters news agency two days ago that "such accusations against the opposition are fairly common."

But the government's security forces are already getting mobilized. Interfax said two days ago that "Belarusian security structures are engaged in investigating material connected with plans for a coup and attempts to overthrow Alyaksandr Lukashenka."

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich said that "the authorities must respond seriously" to accusations aired by the report. "In other European countries such events are classified as a coup, or an attempted coup," he said on a nationwide television program. "This is a serious issue for law enforcement bodies," he said, adding that "they simply must look into all the aspects of the case." Lukashenka himself has had no reaction, yet.

But there is already little doubt that the "law enforcement bodies" will investigate. They are certain to approach that task diligently. And they are almost certain to find reason to expand their investigation further, beyond the framework of the "strategic plan" for the "coup," looking for possible connections and ties to still unknown groups both within and outside the country.

This, after all, has been a frequently used, almost traditional technique of various authoritarian regimes. And Lukashenka's regime has all the traits of authoritarianism.

Only yesterday a new law formalized several curbs imposed last year by the president. The law imposes a requirement of obtaining a prior government permission for any public gathering. It also bans the use of "unsanctioned" flags and insignia. And it introduces punishment for impeding street traffic.

Introduced last March by a presidential decree to stem public demonstrations on the streets of Belarusian cities, these curbs are now the law of the land. Lukashenka's methods have prompted repeated criticism from abroad, with protest coming from the Council of Europe, the European Union and numerous Western countries. Lukashenka has ignored these complaints, and there is no sign that he could alter his methods any time soon.