However, it was only after the failed putsch in Moscow on August 19, 1991 that the Belarusian leadership finally took steps to break away from the central government in Moscow. On August 25, 1991 Belarus declared its independence. The speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Mikalaj Dzemianciej , a supporter of the putschists, stepped down, and even the KGB was temporarily abolished. However, no referendum was called to decide on the issue of independence, as was done in Ukraine.
Stanislau Shushkevich, the deputy speaker of the Supreme Soviet – a former member of the communist party, but not a member of the nomenclature – was elected president of parliament and thus became the first head of state of the new “Respublika Belarus”.
Stanislau Shushkevich – Belarus parliament chairman (1991-94)
On December 8, 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States was founded and soon afterwards the Soviet Union was dissolved. Belarus, whose fate had long been decided by other powers, now had a chance to build its own future.
In the beginning both the government and the opposition sought to build on the great history of the Belarusian people which had been interrupted by its annexation by Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union. But in contrast to the other new republics, the population in Belarus showed very little reaction to such policies. The country had been dominated by Russia for so long that most people had got used to it and had even stopped considering themselves a nation in its own right. Apart from these psychological problems, the population was suffering from very practical, economic problems, so that the government’s attempts to create a feeling of national consciousness appeared grotesque to many people.
Shushkevich took a moderate stance. His father, a writer, had spent seventeen years of his life in punishment camps during the Stalin era. Shushkevich himself, a nuclear physicist whom the Chernobyl disaster had induced to go into politics, was opposed to Moscow’s continual interference into Belarusian affairs and had always emphasised the country’s historical roots – particularly the “Golden Age” of Belarusian history between the 16th and late 18th century (For more details about this part of Belarusian history, see History of Belarus . On his first visit to the United Nations Organisation in New York, Shushkevich even brought a copy of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Litva (1529) with him as a present.
But even though Belarus was now an independent country, there had been no elections and the Supreme Soviet was still the “old” one which had been elected under Soviet law. In early 1992 the opposition therefore started to collect signatures for a referendum on the issue of new elections. The opposition argued that the old communist parliament would not carry out the necessary reforms and would not establish democracy. The campaign was extremely successful. For the first time, the democratic opposition had managed to shake the population up out of its traditional passivity – not only the population of the capital, but of the whole country -and make them take part in the discussion about the future of the country. On April 13 the democrats had collected 383 000 valid signatures, 33 000 more than required by law. However, the Supreme Soviet declared the campaign illegal due to “severe violation of the law” and refused to hold a referendum. Instead, it was agreed to hold elections in March 1994, a year earlier than planned (a promise which was not kept). In an interview with Radio Free Europe Shushkevich justified this decision, arguing that the deputies should be given the chance to do their duty and pass a new electoral law and a new constitution.
The Belarusian state symbols at the Government building in Minsk (until 14 May 1995)
Since he had not been elected by the people, Shushkevich was in a weak position, dependent on a parliament which was the most conservative one of the three Slavic CIS states. So the moderate politician Shushkevich was increasingly pressurized by conservative forces in parliament and in the government of Prime Minister Viacheslau Kiebich. These conservative forces held Shushkevich partly responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and for the country’s economic crisis which had begun afterwards.
In July 1993 a vote of no confidence against the Shushkevich failed, but on January 26, only a few days after Bill Clinton had visited Belarus and praised Shushkevich for his merits, the Supreme Soviet voted him out of office (209 to 36 votes). The minister of the interior and several leading KGB figures were dismissed at the same time. The formal cause for this was the President’s approval of the extradition of two former leaders of the Lithuanian KGB who had attempted to carry out a putsch in Vilnius (Vilnia) in January 1991 and had been hiding in Belarus since. Two days after Shushkevich’s removal from office the Lieutenant General of the militia and chairman of the parliamentary committee for national security, Miechyslau Hryb, was elected President of Parliament and Head of State.
On March 15, 1994, after endless discussions and debate, parliament passed the new Belarusian constitution. The constitution defines Belarus as a democratic and constitutional unitary state which guarantees its citizens all basic liberties, such as the right to private property, health care and education. The right to participation in the political process is guaranteed by free and direct elections of national and local politicians. The legislative power is exercised by the Supreme Soviet, which is elected for a period of five years. It consists of 260 seats and has a number of permanent committees which draw up bills and monitor the work of the government. The new constitution was also the last one of all those passed in other former Soviet republics to introduce the office of president. The Belarusian president, who is elected directly by the people every five years, has extensive powers similar to the Russian president. International treaties and national laws can only become effective with the approval of the president. He is the head of the executive, he institutes the government and is commander-in-chief of the army.