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Belarus: As International Criticism Of Lukashenka Mounts, Public Approval Plummets

A new public opinion poll in Belarus shows the popularity of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is declining. The economy is in bad shape and almost everyone is personally affected. Wages and pensions are not being paid on time. Factories cannot sell their goods at home or abroad. What has gone wrong with the state-planned economy of Belarus, and what strategies is Lukashenka considering to extricate himself from the crisis?

Prague, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As international criticism mounts against the authoritarian rule of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a new poll released this week shows that popular opinion inside Belarus for Lukashenka is also declining.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson said last week that the human rights situation in Belarus is worsening and that the country is "not making progress." The advocacy group Freedom House, in a report issued last month, expressed particular concern about the lack of independent media in Belarus. The criticisms come in the wake of last September's presidential election in Belarus, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said failed to meet democratic standards.

The latest Belarusian public opinion poll was conducted last month by the independent Minsk-based Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies. The results, released this week, show that only 31 percent of Belarusians say they would choose Lukashenka as their president if they were voting today. That's a decline of 14 percentage points since a similar poll conducted by the institute last September, on the eve of the presidential elections.

The new poll also reveals that 55 percent of the respondents say they believe Belarus is heading in the wrong direction. Only 21 percent say they support the current course.

People also were asked whom they would like to see serve as president of a united Russian-Belarusian state. More than 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for Russian President Vladimir Putin, with only 14 percent saying they would prefer Lukashenka. A poll conducted two years ago found that 31 percent supported Putin and 22 percent Lukashenka.

RFE/RL was unable to contact Belarus's presidential press service today for comment on the survey.

Alyaksandr Sosnov is deputy director of the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies. Sosnov told RFE/RL that the poll also discovered the reasons behind Lukashenka's declining popularity. "We asked about the reasons why people are dissatisfied, and the main reasons given were economic -- low incomes and arrears in the payments."

Observers say Belarus' state-planned economy was never very productive, but that the authorities at least managed to pay pensions on time. What has changed?

Sergiy Kulyk is head of the World Bank office in Minsk. He tells RFE/RL that almost all of the current problems in the Belarusian economy stem from a recent decision to increase average salaries to the equivalent of $100. The increase was announced in a Belarusian government program adopted last August and was one of the key points of Lukashenka's campaign during the presidential vote in September. The government is also promising to increase average salaries to the equivalent of $250 per month within three years.

The World Bank is critical of the move. Kulyk told RFE/RL that the increase in salaries has created a lot of problems: "The increase of an average salary to the level of $100 made the factories include this increase in the price of their products, without any [corresponding] growth in efficiency or in the quality of work."

Kulyk said Belarusian products, such as tractors and other agricultural products, became more expensive and less able to compete abroad, primarily in Russia. He said it thus became easy for Russian producers to start pushing Belarusian products out of the Russian market.

It is a vicious circle. Kulyk says Belarusian companies now make less profit, meaning they are unable to pay salaries on time. The workers also have no money to pay into pension funds so pension payments are also in arrears, which observers say could spell even more trouble for Lukashenka, who always enjoyed more support among the older generation.

Four years ago, 13 percent of people 50 and older said they did not support Lukashenka. Today, that figure has increased to almost 22 percent.

Vincuk Viacorka is chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front political movement. He tells RFE/RL that it is common now for Belarusian workers not to be paid salaries or pension payments for a month or even longer. Viacorka says figures from the first quarter of this year show that almost 50 percent of Belarusian state companies and almost all collective farms are unprofitable.

Viacorka says the Belarusian government is in dire straits: "It announced that the number of teachers would be reduced by 25 percent. The financing of education will be reduced by 20 percent. The financing of public health will be reduced by 30 percent."

Viacorka says he believes that the number of people who oppose Lukashenka is even higher than the polls show. "Without any doubt," he says, "there were people who were afraid to say they were not happy with Lukashenka, and we must keep this in mind."

At the end of last month, Lukashenka publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the work of the government and placed the blame on inefficient government officials. He accused the government of economic mismanagement and issued a "final warning" to Prime Minister Guennadi Novitski.

Lukashenka sacked the heads of four public enterprises, as well as Health Minister Vladislav Ostapenko. He also threatened that all companies that do not pay their taxes in an orderly fashion or who hire fired state officials will be nationalized.