Prelude to Independence

Prelude to Independence

The series of events that led to Belarus's independence began with the explosion at the Chornobyl' nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. The foot-dragging of the government in Moscow in even announcing that the accident had occurred, let alone evacuating people from affected areas and providing funds for the cleanup, greatly angered the Belorussian people, most of whom had no political aspirations for independence.

In 1988 Zyanon Paznyak, an archagologist who would later play a role in national politics, revealed the discovery of mass graves of some 250,000 of Stalin's victims at Kurapaty. Many Belorussians were deeply shaken by this news, and some demanded accountability from the central authorities in Moscow. Reformers created the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) in October after several mass demonstrations and clashes with the authorities. Paznyak became the spokesman for the reform movement and nationalist aspirations, and he emerged as the BPF chairman.

The March 4, 1990, elections to the republic's Supreme Soviet gave the country a legislature that was little different from previous legislatures: only 10 percent of the deputies were members of the opposition. But for the most part, the populace seemed satisfied with the new deputies, and the BPF's calls for independence and efforts at nation-building failed to stir up the same strong emotions as movements in neighboring Ukraine and the Baltic republics. Although the Supreme Soviet of the Belorussian SSR adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on June 27, 1990 (some two weeks after Russia had declared its own sovereignty), the March 1991 referendum held throughout the Soviet Union showed that 83 percent of Belorussians wanted to preserve the Soviet Union.

Political change in Belarus came about only after the August 1991 coup d'état in Moscow and a display of satisfaction by the Central Committee of the CPB at the coup attempt--it never issued a condemnation of the coup plotters. Following the coup's collapse and declarations of independence by Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine, Belarus declared its own independence on August 25 by giving its declaration of sovereignty the status of a constitutional document. On August 28, Belarus's prime minister, Vyachaslaw Kyebich, declared that he and his entire cabinet had "suspended" their CPB membership. The next day, both the Russian and the Belarusian governments suspended the activities of the communist party.

Liberals and nationalist reformers used this period of political confusion to advance their cause. On September 18, the parliament dismissed its chairman, Mikalay Dzyemyantsyey, for siding with the coup and replaced him with his deputy, Stanislaw Shushkyevich. The next day, pressed by the small but vocal democratic opposition, the parliament changed the state's name from the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Republic of Belarus. A new national flag (three horizontal stripes, white- red-white) was adopted, along with a new coat of arms (a mounted knight, St. George, Patron Saint of Belarus, with a drawn sword, the emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). On December 8, Belarus joined Russia and Ukraine in signing the Minsk Agreement to form the CIS, which formally put an end to the Soviet Union. On December 21, Belarus signed the Alma-Ata Declaration, which expanded the CIS membership from the original three signatories of the Minsk Agreement to eleven states. And it was agreed that the headquarters of the CIS was to be in Minsk, a move that the government of Belarus welcomed as a means of attracting foreign attention.

The democratic opposition in the Supreme Soviet, led by the twenty-seven-member BPF faction and some of its allies, continued pressing for a referendum on the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet and for new elections. The electorate seemed to be responsive. More than 442,000 signatures in support of the move were collected within three months, but the initiators had underestimated the conservativism of the Supreme Soviet.

Meeting in mid-October 1992 and encouraged by the electoral victory of former communists in Lithuania and growing resistance to President Boris N. Yeltsin's reforms in Russia, the Supreme Soviet solidly rejected the demand for a referendum. Claiming violations in the signature collection drive, 202 deputies voted against the referendum; only thirty-five deputies supported it, and another thirty-five abstained. In view of the fact that in May 1992 the Central Referendum Commission had validated 384,000 of the 442,000 signatures collected (exceeding the 350,000 signatures required by law), the BPF opposition accused the Supreme Soviet's conservative majority of an open violation of the republic's constitution and of an attempt to retain power by illegal means. Nonetheless, the opposition won a small victory in this tug-of-war: the parliament agreed to shorten its five-year term by one year and scheduled the next elections for the spring of 1994.

The Belarusian government headed by Prime Minister Kyebich consisted of former CPB functionaries and took a very conservative approach to economic and political reforms. Kyebich himself characterized his policy as "traditional" and warned about taking "extreme" positions.

Belarus's conservative Supreme Soviet continued to put obstacles in the path of reform. A privatization law was finally passed in July 1993, but it allowed collective and state farms to continue to exist and operate. Privatization of state-owned enterprises had barely begun in mid-1995, despite earlier efforts by Shushkyevich, who was largely a figurehead, to move along reform efforts. Conservative Kyebich, who actually controlled the ministries, was a temporary victor, when, in January 1994, he survived a no-confidence vote that ousted Shushkyevich and replaced him with a Kyebich crony, Myechyslaw Hryb.

In the meantime, the Supreme Soviet adopted a constitution that went into effect on March 30, 1994, and created the office of president, who would now be the head of government instead of the prime minister. A quickly organized election was held in June, and a runoff election between the two highest vote-getters was held in July; in a surprise result, Kyebich was soundly beaten by anticorruption crusader Alyaksandr Lukashyenka. Both Kyebich and Lukashyenka took pro-Russian stands on economic and political matters, and both supported a quick monetary union with Russia. Lukashyenka even called for outright unification with Russia, but it was his anticorruption stance that won him more than 80 percent of the vote.

After Lukashyenka achieved his victory, the BPF granted him a three-month grace period during which it did not openly criticize his policies. Because his campaign promises had often been vague, he had great latitude within which to operate. And because Kyebich resigned after the election, taking his government with him, there were no problems in removing ministers.

Lukashyenka's presidency was one of contradictions from the start. His cabinet was composed of young, talented newcomers as well as Kyebich veterans who had not fully supported Kyebich. As a reward to the parliament for confirming his appointees, Lukashyenka supported the move to postpone the parliamentary elections until May 1995.

Lukashyenka's government was also plagued by corrupt members. Lukashyenka fired the minister of defense, the armed forces chief of staff, the head of the border guards, and the minister of forestry. Following resignations among reformists in Lukashyenka's cabinet, parliamentary deputy Syarhey Antonchyk read a report in parliament on December 20, 1994, about corruption in the administration. Although Lukashyenka refused to accept the resignations that followed, the government attempted to censor the report, fueling the opposition's criticism of Lukashyenka.

Lukashyenka went to Russia in August 1994 on his first official visit abroad as head of state. There he came to realize that Russia would not make any unusual efforts to accommodate Belarus, especially its economic needs. Nevertheless, Lukashyenka kept trying; in February 1995, Belarus signed the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation with Russia, making many concessions to Russia, such as allowing the stationing of Russian troops in Belarus, in hopes that Russia would return the favor by charging Belarus lower prices for fuels. However, because the treaty included no such provision, there was little hope of realizing this objective.

Lukashyenka had several disputes with parliament, mainly over the limits of presidential power (such as whether the president has the right to dissolve parliament). A hunger strike by opposition deputies, led by Zyanon Paznyak, began on April 11, 1995, after Lukashyenka proposed four questions for a referendum and then stated that the referendum would be held regardless of parliament's vote. The protest ended when the striking deputies, forcibly evicted in the middle of the night during a search for an alleged bomb, found that the national television and radio building had been cordoned off as well because of another alleged bomb threat. After this incident, the parliament gave in on a number of matters, including the four referendum questions, because word of their strike now could not be publicized.

The parliamentary elections held in May 1995 were less than successful or democratic. The restrictions placed on the mass media and on the candidates' expenditures during the campaign led to a shortage of information about the candidates and almost no political debate before the elections. In several cases, no one candidate received the necessary majority of the votes in the May 14 elections, prompting another round on May 28. The main problem in the second round was the lack of voter turnout. After the second round, parliament was in limbo because it had only 120 elected deputies--it was still short of the 174 members necessary to seat a new legislature. Another round of elections was discussed, probably near the end of the year, but the government claimed to have no money to finance them.

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