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The politics of Belarus takes place in a framework of a presidential republic with a bicameral parliament. The President of Belarus is the head of state. Executive power is exercised by the government, at its top sits a prime minister, appointed by the President. Legislative power is de jure vested in the bicameral parliament, the National Assembly, however the president may enact decrees that are executed the same way as laws, for undisputed time. Belarus's declaration of independence on 27 July 1990, did not stem from long-held political aspirations but from reactions to domestic and foreign events. Ukraine's declaration of independence, in particular, led the leaders of then Belarusian SSR to realize that the Soviet Union was on the brink of dissolving, which it did.
After the establishment of a Republic on August 25, 1991, Stanislav Shushkevich was selected to be the first Belarusian leader and held this position until 1994. During that time frame, Shushkevich directed his country in a way to become free from its Soviet past and try to look towards the West. His successor, Alexander Lukashenko, changed all of that upon assuming office in 1994 and began to turn his attention away from the West and back towards Russia. And, during his rule, Lukashenko began to re-instate Soviet-era functions and reintroduced the symbols from Soviet Belarus. Lukashenko, who is still in power, has caused increased focus on his country due to his leadership manner, which has been considered authoritarian by some and a dictatorship by others.
The first attempt to establish a sovereign Belarusian state in modern history came in early 1918 with the declaration of independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic. The short-lived state was destroyed by the Soviet invasion in 1919. The Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic exists as a government in exile since then.
The Bolsheviks created a puppet Soviet government of Belarus in Smolensk. In 1924, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus joined the USSR together with Soviet-controlled Russia, Ukraine and Transcaucasia.
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 (see List of Members of the Belarusian Parliament, 1990–1995), and the Belarusian Popular Front's (BPF) calls for independence and efforts at nation-building failed to stir up the same strong emotions as movements in neighboring Ukraine and the Baltic States. Although the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on July 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 Belarusians 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 Communist Party of Belarus (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, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich 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, Stanislav Shushkevich. The next day, pressed by the small but vocal democratic opposition, the parliament changed the state's name from the Byelorussian 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 (Pahonia - a mounted knight, Saint George, Patron Saint of Belarus, with a drawn sword—the emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). On December 8, Shushkevich joined Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk in signing the Belavezha Accords, which declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The agreement also set up a voluntary association in the Soviet Union's place, the Commonwealth of Independent States. On December 21, Belarus signed the Alma Ata Declaration, which expanded the CIS membership to 11 of the 12 remaining republics of the Soviet Union. 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 conservatism 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 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.
Kebich's government 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' 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 Shushkevich, who was largely a figurehead, to move along reform efforts. Conservative Kebich, who actually controlled the ministries, won a temporary victory when, in January 1994, he survived a no-confidence vote that ousted Shushkevich and replaced him with Kyebich's ally, 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. Kebich finished a distant second in the first round behind Alexander Lukashenko, a youthful anti-corruption crusader. Both Kebich and Lukashenko took pro-Russian stands on economic and political matters, and both supported a quick monetary union with Russia. Lukashenko even called for outright unification with Russia, but it was his anti-corruption stance that allowed him to defeat Kebich in the runoff with 80 percent of the vote.
After Lukashenko 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.
Lukashenko's presidency was one of contradictions from the start. His cabinet was composed of young, talented newcomers as well as Kebich veterans who had not fully supported Kebich. As a reward to the parliament for confirming his appointees, Lukashenko supported the move to postpone the parliamentary elections until May 1995.
Lukashenko's government was also plagued by corrupt members. Lukashenko 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 Lukashenko's cabinet, parliamentary deputy Syarhey Antonchyk read a report in parliament on December 20, 1994, about corruption in the administration. Although Lukashenko refused to accept the resignations that followed, the government attempted to censor the report, fueling the opposition's criticism of Lukashenko.
Lukashenko 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, Lukashenko 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.
Lukashenko 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 Zianon Pazniak, began on April 11, 1995, after Lukashenko 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. In several districts, the results had to be discarded because the number of voters fell short of the minimum turnout of 50 percent. This left parliament in limbo because it had only 120 elected deputies, short of the 174 required for a quorum. Another round of elections was discussed, probably near the end of the year, but the government claimed to have no money to finance them.
Of the 346 deputies to the Belarusian Supreme Soviet elected in 1990, fourteen were still vacant three years later, owing to voter apathy. There was also widespread apathy toward the political process and disbelief that what were being advertised as democratic ways would improve the situation. This general political malaise was then, and continued to be in 1995, reflected in the feeble growth, small size, and low popularity of political parties.
Although the 1990 and 1995 parliamentary elections were far from democratic, the predominance of conservatives in the legislature had deeper roots than just the lack of means for free expression and the strictures of the electoral procedure. A widely heard rhetorical question was, "What is more useful, sausage or freedom?" The conservative majority in parliament—largely managers, administrators, and representatives of such groups as war veterans and collective and state farm managers—had successfully slowed the pace of reforms, and the standard of living had decreased dramatically for most of the population.
In view of the tremendous economic difficulties that accompanied the post-Soviet period, the years before perestroika looked reasonably good to most citizens. The populace was frustrated by the misuse of a freedom whose benefits were measured predominantly in material terms. Nostalgia for the so-called good old days had been growing stronger ever since the country declared its independence, and the lack of political energy in the country hindered the growth of political parties not tied to the old ways.
An example of political inertia is the debate on relations between Russia and Belarus. This debate has proceeded rather noisily and has been couched in cultural and historical terms, rather than in terms of the state's interests. National interests and foreign affairs are still deemed to be beyond the average citizen's competence, and the idea that the party/government knows best is still prevalent in the popular mind.
The four-question referendum that had prompted the parliamentary hunger strike in April 1994 was held on May 15, 1995. The populace voted "yes" on all four questions: Russian as an official language, the return of a Soviet-era red and green flag, economic integration with Russia, and presidential power to dissolve the Supreme Soviet. The result hardly inspired confidence among aspiring democrats.
Stanislau Shushkevich observed at the beginning of 1993 that almost 60 percent of Belarusians did not support any political party, only 3.9 percent of the electorate backed the communist party, and only 3.8 percent favored the BPF. The influence of other parties was much lower.
The Communist Party of Belarus (CPB), part of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), claimed to rule the Belarusian SSR in the name of the proletariat for the entire duration of the republic's existence. For most of this period, it sought to control all aspects of government and society and to infuse political, economic, and social policies with the correct ideological content. By the late 1980s, however, the party watched as CPSU leader Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to withdraw the CPSU from day-to-day economic affairs.
After the CPB was banned in the wake of the August 1991 coup d'état, Belarusian communists regrouped and renamed themselves the Party of Communists of Belarus (PCB), which became the umbrella organization for Belarus's communist parties and pro-Russian groups. The PCB was formally registered in December 1991. The Supreme Soviet lifted the ban on the CPB in February 1993.
The most active and visible of the opposition political groups in Belarus in the first half of the 1990s was the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), founded in October 1989 with Zyanon Paznyak as chairman. The BPF declared itself a movement open to any individual or party, including communists, provided that those who joined shared its basic goal of a fully independent and democratic Belarus. The BPF's critics, however, claimed that it was indeed a party, pointing out the movement's goal of seeking political power, having a "shadow cabinet," and being engaged in parliamentary politics.
The United Democratic Party of Belarus was founded in November 1990 and was the first political party in independent Belarus other than the communist party. Its membership is composed of technical intelligentsia, professionals, workers, and peasants. It seeks an independent Belarus, democracy, freedom of ethnic expression, and a market economy.
The Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly (Hramada) emerged in March 1991. Its members include workers, peasants, students, military personnel, and urban and rural intelligentsia. Its program advocates an independent Belarus, which does not rule out membership in the CIS, and a market economy with state regulation of certain sectors. The assembly cooperates with other parties and considers itself part of the worldwide social democratic movement.
The Belarusian Peasant Party, founded in February 1991, is headquartered in Minsk and has branches in most voblasts. The party's goals include privatization of land, a free market, a democratic government, and support of Belarusian culture and humanism.
The Belarusian Christian Democratic Union, founded in June 1991, was a continuation of the Belarusian Christian-Democratic Party, which was disbanded by the Polish authorities in western Belarus in the 1930s. Its membership consists mainly of the intelligentsia, and it espouses Christian values, nonviolence, pluralism, private property, and peaceful relations among ethnic groups.
The "Belaya Rus'" Slavic Council was founded in June 1992 as a conservative Russophile group that defends Russian interests in all spheres of social life, vociferously objects to the status of Belarusian as the republic's sole official language, and demands equal status for the Russian language.
In 1995 other parties included the Belarusian Ecological Party, the National Democratic Party of Belarus, the Party of People's Accord, the All-Belarusian Party of Popular Unity and Accord, the Belarusian United Agrarian Democratic Party, the Belarusian Scientific Industrial Congress, the Belarusian Green Party, the Belarusian Humanitarian Party, the Belarusian Party of Labor, the Belarusian Party of Labor and Justice, the Belarusian Socialist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, the Polish Democratic Union, and the Republican Party.
Since his election in July 1994 to a 5-year term as Belarus's first President Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated power steadily. He used a November 1996 referendum to amend the 1994 Constitution in order to broaden his powers and extend his term in office. The new constitution has a popularly elected president who serves a five-year term. The 1996 referendum, however, effectively reset Lukashenko's first term, so the next presidential election was not held until 2001. The bicameral parliament consists of the 64-seat Council of the Republic and the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government. Administratively, the country is divided into six regions (provinces) or "voblasts."
Lukashenko was reelected in 2001 with 77 percent of the vote in an election widely denounced as fraudulent outside of Belarus.
In a referendum in 2004, a constitutional amendment lifted the restriction on the number of terms for president. Lukashenko claimed about 76% voter support for this referendum while results were denounced by opponents as fraudulent.
Previously, Lukashenko had been limited to two terms and thus would have been constitutionally required to step down after the next presidential election, due in 2006, but this referendum opened the way to him to stay in power without any limits on number of terms. In October 2005 Lukashenko confirmed that he was going to run again in 2006, "unless people will tell me: Lukashenko, you must stop." He did indeed run for reelection in 2006, and won with 84 percent of the vote. He ran for a fourth term in 2010, this time taking 77 percent of the vote.
Lukashenko was quoted as saying that he has an "authoritarian ruling style" that he uses to run the country. The Council of Europe has barred Belarus from membership since 1997 for numerous voting irregularities in the November 1996 constitutional referendum and parliament by-elections. According to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, Belarus's constitution is "illegal and does not respect minimum democratic standards and thus violates the principles of separation of powers and the rule of law". The Belarusian government is also criticized for human rights violations and its actions against NGOs, independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians.
During the rule of the current administration in Belarus, there have been several cases of persecution, including the disappearance or death of prominent opposition leaders Yury Zacharanka and Viktar Hanchar and independent journalists Dzmitry Zavadski and Veronika Cherkasova. As of 2017, Belarus is also the only nation in Europe that retains the death penalty for certain crimes. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus, among six other states, as part of the US's list of outposts of tyranny. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced that the statement from Secretary Rice "are a poor basis" to form a good Belarusian-American alliance. After Belarus expelled the EU and Polish ambassadors, EU nations jointly withdrew their ambassadors from Belarus, citing tremendous concern over the political oppression in the nation.
Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, religions, and movement all increased in 2001. Despite the constitutional provisions, a 1998 government decree limited citizens' right to express their own opinion. Although independent media remain widely available in Minsk, as part of a continuing crackdown on opposition activity, the authorities stepped up their campaign of harassment against the independent media. The authorities continued to restrict severely the right to a free press through near-monopolies on the means of production of newsprint; means of distribution on national level broadcast media, such as television and radio, and by denying accreditation of journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of assembly is restricted under former Soviet law, which is still valid. It requires an application at least 15 days in advance of the event. The local government must respond positively or negatively at least 5 days prior to the event. Public demonstrations occurred frequently in 2001, but always under government oversight.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the authorities restrict this right in practice. Although Article 16 of the 1996 amended constitution, see the above referendum, reaffirms the equality of religions and denominations before the law, it also contains restrictive language that stipulated that cooperation between the state and religious organizations "is regulated with regard for their influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and country traditions of the Belarusian people."
The authorities issue internal passports to all adults, which serve as primary identity documents and are required to travel, obtain permanent housing, and for hotel registration.
The constitution provides for the right of workers—except state security and military personnel—to voluntarily form and join independent unions and to carry out actions in defense of workers' rights, including the right to strike. In practice, however, these rights are limited. The Belarusian Free Trade Union (BFTU) was established in 1991 and registered in 1992. Following the 1995 Minsk metro workers strike, the President suspended its activities. In 1996 BFTU leaders formed a new umbrella organization, the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Union (BCDTU), which encompasses four leading independent trade unions and is reported to have about 15,000 members.
In May 2001, a complaint was lodged with the ILO by several trade union organizations. A trade union campaign was carried out to raise international awareness and put pressure on the Belarus government. On July 27, 2001, they continued to "create problems for him on the international stage." On several occasions, warnings were given to trade unions considered too political and not sufficiently constructive. Twice, on July 27 and September 27, the bank accounts of the FTUB were frozen by the authorities. FTUB leaders were threatened with prosecution. Investigations were carried out, but with no result. The accounts were then reopened.
In 2005, the Lukashenko government launched a campaign against the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB) which represents the Polish minority in Belarus and was the largest civil organization uncontrolled by the government at that time. The Belarusian authorities claimed that their pro-western Polish neighbors were trying to destabilize the government of Belarus. In May and in summer, they closed a Polish-language newspaper, replaced the democratically elected leadership of the UPB with their own nominees and launched a media campaign against Poland; both parties expelled each other's diplomats.