Last years of Soviet rule
The first major event that led large parts of the Belarusian population to put up resistance against the central Soviet government in Moscow was the Chernobyl tragedy on April 26, 1986. Although Chernobyl is in Ukraine, close to the Belarusian border, the consequences of the nuclear accident were even more disastrous for Belarus than for Ukraine itself. They brought contamination to 20 per cent of the country’s cultivable soil and radiation disease to tens of thousands of people. It is estimated that more than 400 000 people have died from cancer since the disaster. The Soviet government, however, plaid the matter down and failed to inform the population about the dangers of radiation. The first comprehensive steps to decontaminate the soil and evacuate part of the population were taken as late as in 1989 – three years after the accident! This irresponsible policy was severely criticised in Minsk, both by the opposition and by parts of the communist leadership.
On June 25, 1989 the Belarusian Popular Front, which became the main opposition party, was founded. It was given the name of “Adradzennie”, meaning “rebirth”. Due to resistance by the authorities, the founding convention had to take part in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (Vilnia). Among the founding fathers of the new party were well-known personalities, such as the writers Vasil’ Bykau and Alies’ Adamovich. As its main objectives, the new party sought to achieve a revival of Belarusian national consciousness and to reveal the truth about the atrocities committed by the Stalinist regime in Belarus. Zianon Pazniak, a key figure within the movement and its leader today, was instrumental in investigating the mass executions carried out in Kurapaty near Minsk in 1937 – 1941 (see also Kurapaty Homepage). In 1988 he discovered what was left of the mass graves where the victims of the mass executions had been buried. This discovery – the final proof of deliberate genocide – made another major impact on the Belarusian population.
Nevertheless the Belarusian opposition remained of little influence. It was subject to permanent repression and smear campaigns on the part of the communist party. Unlike the Russian communist party, the Belarusian communists remained a united and powerful body up to the summer of 1991. As a consequence they still obtained about 86% of the vote in the parliamentary elections on March 13, 1990, whereas the “Adradzennie” candidates and other democratic candidates only won 32 out of 360 seats.
On July 27, 1990 – following endless debate in the Belarusian Supreme Soviet – Belarus declared its sovereignty. But even after that Minsk failed to take advantage of the weak position the central Soviet government was in. In reality the Belarusian leadership still sought to revive the Soviet Union. Later, when the treaty establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States was negotiated, Belarus was the only one of the former Soviet republics which did not propose any amendments. In contrast to Russia and Ukraine, the Belarusian declaration of independence did not mention the principle of equality for all parties and political movements. In Belarus the communist party continued to play the dominant role in the state and was ready to defend its position.
Demonstration in support of Belarusian independence, Minsk, 1989 – End of Soviet Era
Only months later, in April 1991, the situation began to change. The Soviet government had raised the prices for food, which led to large-scale protest among the population. The independent trade unions called several strikes, so that public life in Minsk virtually came to a standstill for several days. More than a hundred thousand people took to the streets, demanding not only a higher standard of life but also the resignation of the Belarusian government, an end to Soviet rule, free elections and Belarusian independence.