Lukashenko: Too Much Democracy in Belarus

MINSK, Belarus -- Belarus' authoritarian leader on Thursday claimed his country was "so democratic, it's just nauseating," adding to concerns that a crackdown on political opponents after disputed elections and a subway bombing that killed 13 people is set to intensify.

President Alexander Lukashenko used a parliamentary address to also accuse unspecified foreign forces of trying to destabilize the ex-Soviet nation through political and economic pressure, a familiar tactic critics say he uses to deflect responsibility for an economy in freefall.

Lukashenko was referring to the European Union and the United States, which have slapped Belarus with travel and economic sanctions after December's presidential elections harshly criticized by international observers.

A massive government crackdown on the opposition, a spiraling currency crisis and a subway bombing last week have fomented a sense of rising panic and disorder in this former Soviet nation of 10 million people, which is often dubbed the last dictatorship in Europe.

Defending his controversial re-election vehemently, Lukashenko told lawmakers that "before the elections we became so democratic that it made you and me giddy. There was so much democracy, it's just nauseating."

Later he appeared to backtrack a little, suggesting that he wasn't against democracy per se.

"We aren't against democracy ... Belarus needs constructive democracy, not destructive," he said.

Lukashenko has run the country for 17 years with no tolerance for challengers or dissent. Feint hope flickered before the vote that opponents might not suffer the crushing defeats they were accustomed to, as they garnered television airtime to get their messages accross. The hopes were predictably crushed in a landslide victory for Lukashenko followed by arrests and alleged beatings of opposition leaders.

"Lukashenko is saying he's sick of democracy," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party. "But it is precisely the absence of democracy, competition and market reforms that have placed Belarus on the brink of collapse and catastrophe," Lebedko said.

Belarus' quasi-Soviet state-controlled economy has taken a nosedive recently, with hard currency reserves running critically low and people lining up at currency exchange booths to buy dwindling amounts of foreign currency. Earlier this week, authorities have allowed a free float of the national currency in trading between banks, effectively permitting its devaluation.

Lukashenko has also angrily rejected allegations of some bloggers that authorities may have staged the April 11 subway explosion that killed 13 and wounded 200 to use it as a pretext to toughen crackdown on dissent and to distract the Belarusians from the country's rapidly worsening economic situation.

Authorities have arrested five suspects in connection with the blast, including a man in his mid-20s accused of placing the bomb on the platform of Minsk's busiest subway station.

Lukashenko initially ordered prosecutors to interrogate opposition activists over the subway blast, but took a step back Thursday, saying authorities so far haven't found any political connections to the blast.

Lukashenko described the main suspect as a "monster," saying that he and his accomplices had been preparing three more attacks. He said the suspects came from ordinary families, were keen on chemistry and had taken guidance on making explosives from Internet.