Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 192

At least 20,000 Belarusans demonstrated in Minsk yesterday against unification with Russia and for free parliamentary and presidential elections. Carrying Belarusan national flags–a forbidden symbol in Belarus, where a Soviet-type flag has been reimposed–participants set alight copies of the draft treaty of union with Russia and adopted a resolution telling the outside world that “the people of Belarus, like any normal people, do not want dictatorship and do want to return to Europe.” The OMON ultimately charged and dispersed the procession in the city center, injuring dozens. For the first time at an opposition action, some masked young demonstrators used clubs and stones in resisting the police. Opposition parties, independent trade unions and the presidium of the forcibly dissolved parliament had called the demonstration as the opening event in a planned “hot autumn.”

The official publication of the draft treaty of union with Russia has fueled tensions in Belarus. Printed on October 8 simultaneously in the official governmental dailies, Rossiiskaya gazeta and Sovietskaya Belorussia (still so named), the draft treaty and attached documents envisage a quick unification by the end of 1999, leaving the process basically to the discretion of Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Both leaders would benefit from a quick consummation. Yeltsin and/or the Kremlin entourage want a propaganda gimmick for Russia’s approaching parliamentary and presidential elections. Lukashenka is growing desperate for Russian economic succor as the Belarusan economy nosedives, destroying his main claim to popular acceptance–the pretense of avoiding mass pauperization through avoidance of reforms.

Lukashenka paid a working visit on October 14-15 to Russia’s Kaliningrad Region–the Koenigsberg area, seized from Germany by Stalin after World War II. Addressing an assembly of the regional officialdom to repeated standing ovations, Lukashenka made a number of oratorical and policy statements. First, “I have always been a Communist and do not renounce it now.” Second, it is necessary to “rush the unification of Belarus and Russia because the older generations are leaving us, and the younger ones are not committed to the idea of unification. Unification will become increasingly more difficult with the passage of time.” Third, the post-Soviet states are assisting the West’s strategy of “encircling Russia.” Fourth, Belarus is “virtually the only country to have remained a loyal ally to Russia.” Fifth, “Russia’s enemies,” such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Soros, plot to tear the Kaliningrad Region and the North Caucasus away from Russia. (That–according to Lukashenka–explains Soros’ visit to Kaliningrad the preceding week to launch technical assistance programs and is the reason that the Soros Foundation was expelled from Belarus.)

The Belarusan president was received with honors by the commander of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, who promised that his fleet would recruit and train Belarusan youths as sailors for service on Russian warships. The proposal flies in the face of the Belarusan constitution which expressly bans military service by Belarusans outside the country’s borders. By the same token, the proposal substantiates the Belarusan opposition’s argument that unification with Russia would involve young Belarusans in Russia’s military conflicts or, at a very minimum, expose them to the cruelties of Russian military barracks.

Meanwhile the OSCE-brokered dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition has reached a deadlock owing to the authorities’ recent repressive measures. The opposition insists on a set of preconditions to resuming the dialogue, to wit: an official accounting of the fate of those opposition leaders–including Viktar Hanchar and Yury Zakharenka–who have “disappeared” in suspect circumstances; the release of Mikhail Chyhir and other political detainees; revoking the closure of nine opposition newspapers, including Naviny/Nasha Svaboda; and ceasing the persecution of nongovernmental groups. Knut Vollebaek, Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has endorsed these demands in a communique issued by the OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Mission in Minsk. The authorities would, however, almost certainly doom the dialogue rather than meet those minimal terms for its resumption (NTV, ORT, Itar-Tass, BNS, AP, Reuters, October 15-17).