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Behind the Headlines: Belarus Jews Express Concern over New Powers for President

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A controversial referendum giving Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko virtually unlimited powers has heightened the feeling of uncertainty among many of the country’s Jews.

“The situation is very unclear,” said Boris Ozersky, director of the Belarus Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities.

For now, many in the community are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Jewish history has shown that we should be extremely careful in expressing ourselves at such points,” he said, adding, “We are trying to watch the situation from the outside.”

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, claimed overwhelming victory in Sunday’s constitutional referendum.

The 41-year-old president announced that his new version of the constitution was now in effect after the Central Election Commission said he won the support of 70.5 percent of the voters.

Lukashenko’s version would extend his term in office by two years to November 2001 and would strengthen his hand in a newly restructured Parliament.

The referendum returns were not a surprise for Belarus Jews.

“The results were quite predictable,” Yevgeny Rabinovich said in a telephone interview.

Rabinovich, head of the community’s anti-Semitism monitoring group, said that while some of the votes might have been falsified, the results largely reflected the mood of Belarus society.

Belarus has been experiencing severe economic crisis since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike most of the other former Soviet republics, there has been little hope there that the situation would improve soon.

What happens next in the country of 10.4 million, perched between Russia and Poland, appears to be up to Lukashenko.

Although many are concerned about the future, the Jews of Belarus, estimated at about 100,000, are not monolithic in their political views.

“Like the non-Jews, the older and the younger generations of Belarus Jews voted differently in the referendum,” Rabinovich said, referring to the public opinion polls showing that the older citizens of Belarus were largely supportive of Lukashenko.

Some Jewish leaders seemed hesitant to speak about the possible consequences of this week’s vote.

“It’s very hard to predict what happens tomorrow,” Yakov Basin, a veteran of the Jewish movement said in a telephone interview from the Belarus capital of Minsk.

Basin called Lukashenko, who is strongly pro-Russian, “a Russian chauvinist.”

“Politically, Lukashenko is very close to [Russia's ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky,” said Basin. Zhirinovsky was the first Moscow political figure to meet with Lukashenko right after the latter was elected president two years ago.

“Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism always come together,” said Basin. “When Lukashenko has unlimited powers, his sympathies will eventually come to the surface.”

In an interview last year with a German newspaper, Lukashenko expressed praise for Hitler’s economic policies. He later downplayed his remark.

Meanwhile, Belarus Jewry has received very little support from the state when it comes to reviving Jewish culture and traditions.

The government has shown no interest in developing the culture of minorities, Basin said, adding that “the situation is the same with Polish or Ukrainian minorities.”

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