It is now  4:09 am  Tuesday,  June  19, 2001  in Belarus

Political Issues

The dissolution of the Soviet Union came about because of a series of governmental excesses so severe that they infuriated the citizens of the member republics, even against the backdrop of totalitarian tyranny which those people had accepted for their whole lives. In Belarus, as in most of the republics (including Russia itself), it was believed that the Communist Party had committed treason against the people. (See: History)

Thus, when Belarus declared its independence in 1991, the Communist Party of Belarus was formally dissolved. Yet, Premier Vyascheslav Kebich and the entire communist government apparatus, with its well-established connections, remained in place! This continuity of power gave Belarus a reputation for stability.

At that time there were only two political parties in Belarus: the Belarusian National Front (BNF) and the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB). After the formal dissolution of the CPB in 1991, the BNF, which had always proclaimed Belarusian independence as its major goal, became the strongest political force in the country.

However, the BNF soon lost some of its popular support because it began to adopt an ultra-nationalist position. Somewhat understandably, after 70 years during which Soviet Russia had attempted to destroy the Belarusian sense of national identity, the BNF sought to reestablish Belarus' national pride by rejecting all things Russian -- in effect, to recreate the Grand Duchy of Litva and Rus with a modern democratic government. This naturally disturbed the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian minorities in Belarus, who together comprise at least a fifth of the population.

This led to the formation of the Belarusian Social-Democratic Gramada (BSDG) party, which espouses national unity and its own social democratic orientation. The BNF and the BSDG both promote a Belarusian national identity, but the BSDG is far more willing to cooperate with former Soviet organizations.

In February 1993, the Supreme Soviet of Belarus repealed the August 1991 resolution that had dissolved the Communist Party. In the summer of 1993, increasing energy prices led to a new wave of discontent, and the founding of the Patriotic Movement of Belarus, to represent all the small pro-imperial and pro-communist groups in the republic; its slogan is "Together with Russia for a strong confederacy."

Belarus is going through a process of differentiation: the old party hacks are being replaced by leaders drawn from top-level industrial managers. Groups with only informal power are becoming aware of their limitations and accepting the need to participate in public politics. Members of the newer parties view politics as a means of self-preservation as well as a way to consolidate strength and improve social status.

Despite the efforts of political leaders to consolidate forces, the only thing they have accomplished is further political fragmentation. Today Belarus has over 30 registered political parties! Through all of this, the BNF has managed to maintain a small majority in the parliament (43 deputies) which enables it to block legislation.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the Communist party is making a comeback. Difficulties associated with Belarus' attempts to convert from being one element in the Soviet Unions's state controlled economy to running its own independent market driven economy have caused many people to yearn for the "good old days" of the Soviet Union and Communist socialism. (See: Economy)

On 15 March 1994 Belarus adopted a new Constitution (effective 30 March 1994) which, among other changes, created the office of President. Seven candidates entered the race, the most influential of which were Henadz' Karpenka, the chairman of the center-leftist Party of Peoples' Concord; Zyanon Paznyak, leader of Belarusian National Front; Stanislau Shushkevich, the former parliamentary speaker of the Supreme Soviet; Alyaksandar Lukashenka, head of the parliament's anti-corruption committee; and, of course, Prime Minister Vyacheslau Kebich.

The first presidential election was held on 24 June 1994. This resulted in a run-off between Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vyacheslau Kebich on 10 July 1994. (None of the various democratically oriented candidates received enough votes individually to qualify for the run-off.) Lukashenka won this election with an 85% popular majority, and on 20 July 1994 began serving a five year term.

Alyaksandar Lukashenka is an unrepentent Communist. He was an instructor of political propaganda in border troops and motorized infantry of the Soviet Army in 1975-77 and 1980-82. In 1977-78 he worked in Komsomol (a Communist youth organization) and Soviet bodies in Mogilev. Since 1982 he had been working as Vice-chairman of a collective farm, Vice-director of a construction materials factory, Secretary of the Local Party Committee of the collective farm, and Director of the collective farm "Gorodets", Shklov District, Mogilev Oblast.

In 1990 Lukashenka was elected a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus. While a deputy, he founded a "Communists for Democracy" Deputy group and was Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Commission for investigating the activity of business entities created under the bodies of state administration (from April 1993 to July 1994).

Lukashenka based his campaign on a platform of anti-corruption and anti-Kebich slogans, as well as playing on people's nostalgic moods about "good old" Soviet times, when shops had enough sausage and meat, and when there was more economic security. Lukashenka proudly stressed that he was the only Belarusian deputy who voted against the Belavezha agreements, which put an end to the Soviet empire and created the CIS.

President Lukashenka established a strong, authoritarian regime. To enforce his rule he created a so-called presidential vertical power, which consists of presidential representatives in all regions of Belarus who are not subordinate to local executive authority. He next launched a well-planned attack on the independent mass media in Belarus. Many popular TV shows and newspapers which criticized his actions were closed; other editors were replaced by more loyal ones. This happened to the most popular Belarusian newspaper, "Narodnaya Gazeta" (The People's Paper), whose editor-in-chief MP Iosif Syaredzich was fired by the decree of President Lukashenka. The opposition newspaper "Svaboda" (Freedom) was forced out of Minsk, and then out of Belarus. It is currently being printed in Vilnius, Lithuania.

These actions met with protest from the Supreme Soviet, but their protests were ignored. When a group of democratic deputies held a hunger strike in the parliamentary building in protest of an upcoming referendum on integration with Russia, President Lukashenka ordered them beaten and forcefully removed by police. Lukashenka then called for the parliament to dissolve itself -- however this anti-Constitutional demand was rejected by the Supreme Soviet.

Lukashenka then held a referendum on May 14, 1995 to obtain the people's approval of his actions and seek a mandate for future ventures. Four questions were on the referendum: do you approve economic integration with Russia? do you approve establishing Russian as an official language in Belarus? do you approve of the new Belarusian state symbols? do you allow the president to dismiss the parliament if necessary? Although only 64.7 per cent of the population took part in the referendum, all four propositions were approved -- by wide margins.

There were allegations of falsifications of votes and direct instructions on how to vote, especially in the countryside; but the fact remains that a large percentage of the Belarusian population sees reunification with Russia (or at least a return to the old economic system) as the only way back to economic security. While most Belarusians strongly disapprove of Lukashenka's methods, they are reluctant to criticize him because his methods appear to be working. He has brought annual inflation down from over 1,200% to "only" 63%, ensured that workers are paid on time, and produced a 10% economic growth rate. In Belarus, as elsewhere, nothing succeeds like success.

The next presidential election should be held in mid-1999. The major issues are sure to be related to the future of relations between Belarus and Russia: Should Belarus seek to maintain total independence? Should Belarus seek eventual membership in the European Economic Union? Should there be an economic union with Russia? Should Belarus attempt to maintain military neutrality, or accept a full mutual-support alliance with Russia? Should there be a total economic and political union with Russia?

Underlying all of these issues will be the one question that matters most to the average Belarusian today: What is the best way to restabilize the economy and provide economic security for Belarus' workers now and for the immediate future?