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Russia: Lukashenka Performs To Ovations In the Duma

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appeared before the Russian State Duma today, to great applause, and delivered a flowery speech blasting the West. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that Lukashenka renewed his appeal for a Russian-Belarus merger and touted what he called his country's economic achievements.

Moscow, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Duma rose to its feet today, as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka launched into an hour and a half of rhetoric. Lukashenka was invited by the communist and nationalist opposition in Russia, who share his nostalgia for the Soviet era and resistance to market reforms. The outspoken president, who is criticized by reformist opposition inside and outside of Belarus for anti-democratic policies, took the opportunity to detail what he sees as the many misdeeds committed against himself and his country.

The theme of Lukashenka's speech is that Russia and Belarus must join forces to counter economic and political pressure from the West.

His aim, he said, is to convince Russia that a merger with Belarus is necessary for historical, cultural, geopolitical and economic reasons. Until now, Moscow has only accepted watered-down versions of a union between the two countries, and has declined Lukashenka's calls for a common currency and common governmental bodies. Lukashenka blames reformists in Russia, rather than President Boris Yeltsin, for the lack of progress on union.

"The problem is not the president. We met yesterday and discussed these questions and I was sure, even if somebody doesn't like it, I saw that President Yeltsin is ready to take even more radical steps in this direction. What's happening is that he is afraid that the social elite will not support this radical project of the union treaty."

He asked why, when the Soviet Union could be destroyed in one night, it is taking more than a decade to reconstruct what he calls the people's will.

After a long, detailed remembrance of Belarus and Russia's common struggle against Germany during the Second World War, he turned to accusations against the West. Lukashenka said the United States was trying to prevent the union by "pouring dirt" on Belarus. That may have been a reference to reports aired on Western television earlier this month showing opposition demonstrators in Minsk being brutally beaten up by local police.

Lukashenka said the West should be on its knees in thanks to Russians and Belarusians for saving the world in World War Two. Russia should not bow to Western financial institutions, he said.

"Why do you get on your knees in front of these crooks from the IMF (International Monetary Fund)? Why did you get on your knees in front of them?" This statement was followed by applause.

Applause and shouts greeted the Belarusian president throughout his speech, especially when he said Russia should not have to justify its actions in Chechnya to the West. Jokes about U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were greeted with laughter.

The only real surprise in Lukashenka's speech was his interpretation of Belarus's economy. Russian politicians who oppose the merger have argued that Belarus would be an economic deadweight for Russia. Lukashenka claimed today that Belarus has the fastest-growing economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States. That statement contradicts independent estimates, as well as recent reports of empty store shelves and scarcity of bread.

Basking in the support of the Russian deputies, Lukashenka avoided discussing his difficulties with the domestic opposition. Human rights organizations have been worrying about the recent disappearance of several opposition leaders, Lukashenka's crackdown on independent media, and the beating and detainment of opposition protesters.

But the Belarusian president only said that the human rights situation in his country is "normal."

Still, despite the applause, Lukashenka did not receive full support in the Duma. His main Russian opponents, the reformist faction Yabloko, boycotted the speech. Yabloko said it did not consider Lukashenka a legitimate head of state, accusing him of illegally extending his term in office last July and illegally dissolving his parliament.

Yabloko supports a partial merger of Russia and Belarus, but without Lukashenka. Yabloko faction head Grigory Yavlinsky wrote in a statement handed out during the speech that, to quote, "The illegal regime in Belarus is the major brake keeping our two countries from a real integration [and] calls for open and honest elections."

Yabloko also rekindled recurring rumors voiced in the Russian press that the treaty might become a pretext for Yeltsin to stay in power as federal president, after his term as Russian president ends next July.