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Belarussian Wild Card

You have to hand it to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Other people in the former Soviet Union doubtless would like to turn the clock back, but Mr. Lukashenko has the gall, and the position, to actually give it a try.

Belarus's self-made constitutional dictator recently exulted, "People are saying, Mr. President, give us a dictatorship. Give us Stalin's times."

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A majority of Belarussians may want the leaden hand of old-style Soviet rule. But that view is not as popular in neighboring Russia, where liberal reformers in the Yeltsin administration - preoccupied with such tasks as breaking up their country's huge, corrupt electricity monopoly - successfully watered down an agreement to reunite the two Slavic nations. While some Yeltsin aides favored amalgamation with Belarus as a counterweight to NATO's planned move eastward, the reformers saw, accurately, that linking up with Lukashenko would be simply a dead weight - a terrible bargain, economically and politically.

Late last year, the Belarussian leader, a former collective farm boss, railroaded a popular vote that gave him virtual sole power, eliminating an independent legislature and judiciary. That sparked some vocal, if poorly organized, protest.

Recently an American diplomat in Minsk was kicked out of the country for having observed the demonstrations and police crackdown. The US promptly booted out a corresponding Belarussian envoy. Just like old times, when Washington and Moscow carried on such contests.

But it is, in fact, new times. And a Lukashenko-run Belarus, yearning for Stalinist security and sitting between Russia and what are soon to be NATO's easternmost outposts, is a geopolitical wild card. The West, through responsiveness (or lack of it) to the problems and sensitivities of the new nations of the East, could have a lot to do with how that card is played.

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