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BELARUS LEADER RESIGNS AFTER NO-CONFIDENCE VOTE

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A former Communist Party boss was the leading contender Thursday to replace Belarus leader Stanislav Shushkevich, who resigned late Wednesday night following a no-confidence vote in Parliament.

The reformist Shushkevich was forced out of office in a pro-Communist backlash that has plunged the former Soviet republic into political turmoil, which also unseated the country's interior minister and KGB chief earlier this week.The conservative-dominated Belarussian Parliament voted 209-36 to demand Shushkevich's resignation. A separate vote on conservative Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich left him in office, with a 175-101 vote to let him keep his job.

Deputy Parliament Chairman Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, a political conservative, took over Thursday as acting head of state until the legislature could choose a new leader.

Local radio reported that the leading candidate to replace Shushkevich is a hard-line Communist, Valery Tikhinya, the former head of the Belarussian Communist Party.

In a statement issued Thursday, Shushkevich accused the republic's Communists of resisting the radical reforms necessary to rescue the ailing economy of the former Soviet republic.

"(The Communists) don't want to understand that we are already moving along the path of democracy in the economy. And there is no other way now," he said. "We are falling down, and it is possible to stop this process only with harsh measures, which the Communists don't want to hear about."

Shushkevich also warned of a deep ideological schism in Belarussian society that could eventually produce a wave of nationalism.

"We are living in a society of great polarization between ultra-left Communists and ultra-right nationalists, and this polarization is going to become greater and greater, and not to the benefit of Communists," he said. "Unfortunately, they don't realize this."

Although the real issues behind Parliament's ouster of Shushkevich were political and economic, his foes accused the Belarussian head of state of corruption as the lever to pry him out of office.

Shushkevich denied any wrongdoing, but the unproven corruption charges gave deputies an excuse to remove the reformer whose policies were unpopular in the Soviet-era legislature.

Parliament's anger was stoked by the recent arrest and deportation of two members of the outlawed Lithuanian Communist Party who had taken refuge in Belarus to avoid charges in neighboring Lithuania for participating in the bloody 1991 Soviet crackdown on Lithuanian independence. Their extradition led to the ouster of the KGB chief and the interior minister and a condemnation of the prosecutor.