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Belarus: Weak Economy Puts Sovereignty At Risk,Says Opposition Politician

Stanislau Shushkevich, former leader of Belarus and -- since 1994 -- a well-known opposition politician, spoke at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague recently about the situation in his country. In a wide-ranging talk, Shushkevich discussed politics, the economy and his hopes for the future in Belarus. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 20 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since his ouster as Belarus's head of state by a Communist-dominated parliament in 1994, Stanislau Shushkevich has been one of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's most ardent critics.

A physicist by training, the 66-year-old Shushkevich became involved in politics in 1986 when he criticized government negligence in reporting on the nuclear accident at Chornobyl in neighboring Ukraine. With the backing of the Belarusian Popular Front, Shushkevich became a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in 1990. In 1991 he was named its chairman -- the highest post in the land.

Shushkevich was one of the three original signatories of the Belovezhskaya accords in December of that year. Those accords dissolved the Soviet Union and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Shushkevich had advocated neutrality in military matters, but in 1993 the Belarusian parliament overrode Shushkevich's objections and voted to join the CIS collective security agreement. Communist legislators forced Shushkevich from his post as head of state soon afterward. He now leads the Social Democratic "Hramada" party.

Shushkevich says Belarus's current leadership has been unable to develop the economy and for the past several years, Belarus has been subsisting on its aging Communist-era infrastructure.

"In Belarus, the relics of gigantic unprofitable communist enterprises are being preserved. The relative well-being of society -- I stress relative -- and our current survival stems from the fact that we are using up the resources which our fathers and grandfathers amassed."

According to Shushkevich, Belarus's feeble economy means the country is not self-reliant, putting its sovereignty at risk.

"In the conditions of such a drop in production and the using up of our basic resources, Belarus cannot pay for its own upkeep. The labor of its people is not enough to buy it the necessary amount of energy it requires in Russia -- gas and coal."

Shushkevich notes that Russia has skillfully manipulated Belarus's predicament -- with the willing help of President Lukashenka, to bring Minsk back into its embrace.

"As a result, it looks as if Russia is constantly helping this poor Belarus and keeps the poor Belarus afloat, which cannot exist as a sovereign state."

In addition to running the economy into the ground, Shushkevich faults the Belarus leadership for gutting all efforts at nation-building.

In 1994, when Lukashenka came to power, textbooks which attempted to portray the region's past objectively were pulled from school shelves, to be replaced by Soviet-era books. The country's post-independence flag was replaced by its Soviet equivalent.

Currently, in the capital Minsk, there is only one secondary school where teaching is conducted in the Belarusian language. As in Soviet times, all students interested in continuing their education -- Shushkevich notes -- must be fluent in Russian.

"The possibility of receiving an education in the Belarusian language has been lost. There is not one higher education institution where courses are taught in Belarusian."

The press, too, has been curbed. The few semi-free publications that exist are dwarfed by the output of state-sponsored periodicals.

"For each edition of the more or less free press -- and I say more or less because we have no truly free press -- there are 24 government publications of considerably better quality, cheaper etc ..."

But Shushkevich says that all of these factors, which follow October's less than democratic parliamentary elections, have galvanized the divided opposition. Next year, presidential elections are due and Shushkevich says the opposition intends to field one candidate against Lukashenka.

"By February, we will name one candidate."

Next year holds the promise of political change for Belarus -- if the opposition plays its cards right. But Shushkevich says he is determined to effect change through the ballot box. He shrugs off the possibility of a Yugoslav-style popular revolt, pointing out that after centuries of suppressed national consciousness and 80 years in which personal initiative of any kind was stifled, Belarusians are not ready to take to the streets en masse.

"As a physicist, I will tell you. We have different surroundings and different starting conditions."

But as a politician, Shushkevich says he intends to be there for his people, whatever happens.