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Retro-Soviet-Style Belarus President Shores Up Power, Smiles at Moscow

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If Russia ever begins to expand its reach again, Belarus would be the first of the former Soviet countries to rejoin. Although it was one of the more prosperous Soviet republics, it has had more trouble than most in adapting to independence.

While Russia seems to be heading away from its Soviet past, Belarus is increasingly heading back in that direction.

Popular and authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is grasping for ever tighter control of the country. He has united against him nearly every political faction. The result is a confrontation between Mr. Lukashenko and the Belarussian parliament and Cabinet ministries. This standoff could end up widening his already expansive presidential powers. But some say it could also end up weakening his political strength.

This week alone, four Cabinet ministers have resigned, including the economics minister. Two leading opposition politicians, including the most popular potential president except Lukashenko himself, applied for political asylum in the United States on Tuesday to escape from what they said was Lukashenko's "authoritarian regime."

A week ago, seven political parties representing 70 percent of the seats in parliament signed a declaration denouncing Lukashenko's proposals for changing the Belarussian Constitution. Now there is talk in the chamber of impeachment.

Lukashenko has responded publicly that he will dismiss any parliament that tries to impeach him. He will not only serve out his current term, but the next two as well, he says. The Constitution allows only two consecutive terms, but Lukashenko has not been fussy about such fine points.

His main popular gambit so far is promoting reunification with Russia - an idea that also appeals to Russian national pride, if not to those concerned about the Russian national budget. He signed an agreement this spring with Russian president Boris Yeltsin for stronger integration between the two nations. Lukashenko bills it as a step toward reunion.

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