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Belarus: Analysis From Washington -- Lukashenka Lashes Out

Washington, 2 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has threatened to expel any diplomat who interferes in the domestic affairs of his country in advance of a presidential poll there later this year, a reflection of his increasing isolation both domestically and internationally.

Lukashenka told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS on 1 March that he would put in jail anyone Belarusian courts found guilty of espionage. Moreover, he said that he would expel any diplomat -- including envoys from Western countries -- who used an embassy to spy on Belarus or interfere in the elections.

In addition, the Belarusian leader linked his domestic opponents to foreign donors who he said had given the dissidents cash and office equipment. Such people, he said, "openly declare their intention to turn Belarus into another Yugoslavia. But that will not go. Electing a president will be up to the people of Belarus rather than to [foreign] security services." His election, Lukashenka added, will take place without the "fuss" usually generated by journalists.

Lukashenka's latest outburst is typical of a man who has expressed admiration for the governing styles of Stalin and Hitler and who has shown little mercy to his opponents as he has moved to reestablish a highly authoritarian regime in Belarus. And his remarks come on the heels of a Belarusian state television program charging the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of supporting the opposition to Lukashenka's continuation in office.

The tone of that program is suggested by one of the state television officials who oversaw its production. Aleksandr Zimovsky noted that "the Americans are making a crude mistake in regarding Belarus as a playground for their spies and agents. Belarusian special services have something with which to counter their attempts to act uncontrollably in our country."

But Lukashenka's remarks this time may reflect something more than his typical bravado: they may mirror growing concerns on his part about his own isolation domestically and internationally, on the one hand, and an effort by him to counter this isolation by portraying himself as the only true defender of Belarus against shadowy forces from abroad.

Recent polls taken in Belarus show that support for Lukashenka is declining, even among his traditional rural base. And in addition to continuing Western European and American criticism of Minsk's violation of human rights, the Belarusian leader now appears to be losing support from the one place he had always expected to receive it: the Russian government in Moscow.

In recent weeks, Russian commentators have been increasingly critical of Lukashenka's performance, especially his all-too-public differences with Moscow over the proper response to the detention in New York of Russia-Belarus Union secretary Pavel Borodin on an extradition request by Swiss prosecutors. Lukashenka wanted a hard line, Moscow a softer one, and Lukashenka left Moscow a day early over this issue during a January visit.

After that diplomatic spat, some Russian newspapers pointedly suggested that the Russian government was distancing itself from Lukashenka and was even interviewing possible replacements to head the Belarusian government. As one Moscow observer put it at the time, everyone understands that the president of Belarus "is chosen by the Kremlin rather than by the Belarusian people."

Such Russian criticism of Lukashenka only increased this week in the wake of the communist victory in the Moldovan parliamentary elections, with several Moscow analysts suggesting that taking Moldova into the Russia-Belarus Union would further compound Russia's problems, just as forming the union with Lukashenka's Belarus already had.

Faced with this apparent softening of Russian support and confronting continuing criticism from both the West and the Belarusian people, Lukashenka appears to be retreating into the fortress mentality typical of authoritarian rulers when they begin to feel that they are losing their grip. Again and again, such leaders have sought to save themselves at home by attacking supposed enemies abroad.

Occasionally, such lashing out has in fact won them a respite, but more often, their threatening languages has only highlighted just how removed from reality those who make them are. And by calling attention to that fact, their remarks cut into whatever support they may still have, thus heightening rather than solving the political problems that such leaders inevitably have created for themselves.