Archive for the ‘1996 Referendum’ Category

Based on materials by Syarhey Zaprudski. First published in the book Belarus – the third sector people, culture, language East European Democratic Centre. Warsaw-Minsk 2002

The Republic of Belarus, established in July 1990, partly inherited the language policy pursued by the BSSR in the last year of its existence. To a great extent this policy was determined by “The Law of the BSSR on the Languages in the Byelorussian SSR adopted in January 1990. Article 2 of this law declared the Belarusian language the only official language in Belarus and qualified Russian as the language of international relations among the peoples of the USSR” However, this law did not regulate the use of languages in unofficial communication.
Various articles of the law were going to be gradually introduced during the next three to ten years. The adoption of the law on languages should be considered both as the result of external factors and a significant victory of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF).

The first Belarusian Language Grammar was composed and printed in Vilna (Vilnius), back then the capital of Grand Duchy of Lithuania – in 1596 by Lauryn Zyzani. The second version of Belarusian Grammar – “Grammatiki Slovenskiia” (“Slavic Grammar”) – was published in Vilna by Meleci Smatrycki in 1618. Grammar by Smatrycki underwent multiple reprints in the coming years. Such the fifth and sixth reprints were done in Moscow in 1648 and 1721. It was re-edited by Paula Nenadovich in Rymniki in 1755 and became the basis of Serbian literary language. Hristan Dupchanin has reworked it for Bulgarian language. This Grammar also became the basis of the first Ukrainian grammar of Ivan Mogil’nicki.

The law on languages, adopted in 1990 after the Belarusian language had suffered a long period of decline between the 1930s and 1980s, should be seen as a legislative means aimed at defending a weaker language. At the same time, the law stipulated a much broader use of the Belarusian language, which was supposed to change from a minority to majority language in the future.

Language legislation and related practical measures that were not secret but brought before the public were a novelty for state institutions of post-Soviet Belarus No special bodies existed that could design and pursue a language policy, therefore, in the initial stage of implementation, the executive branch had to rely on the intellectual resources of a non-governmental organization, which had experience in this field, the Belarusian Language Society (BLS) founded in June 1989.

Thus, in May 1990, BLS together with the Ministry of Education of the BSSR held a scientific and practical Conference entitled “The Official Status of the Belarusian Language: Problems and Ways to Implement the Law “In September 1990, the Council of Ministers adopted “The State Programme for the Development of the Belarusian Language and Other National Languages in the BSSR” that stipulated a number of measures for implementing the law over the course of the 1990s. Both in the BSSR and the USSR, the discussion regarding language problems in Belarus was under the control of the party. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, the declaration of independence of the Republic of Belarus and the suspension of the CPSU and CPB, possibilities of free speech increased greatly, The USSR – the regional superpower – was now gone from the World map. An independent Belarusian state emerged and protests arose among the Russian-oriented population, which to a large extent comprised the Belarusian elite. Just yesterday they identified themselves exclusively with the USSR and had no need for contact with the Belarusian language or culture. Finding themselves in this completely new situation, these people argued that the existing legislation is poorly grounded and attempted to discredit both the new linguistic trends and the social and political groups behind them. With Belarus adopting a multiparty system, language issues became an essential element of political discourse. Democraticaly oriented figures fiercely competed for the right to speak on behalf of “the true” democrats and the political environment in Belarus saw many ephemeral pro-democratic associations seeking their own niches.

Continue Reading »


Can there be a peaceful coexistence between Russian state interests and Belarusian independence?

The dictatorship in Belarus has strengthened its position. On November 24 the Belarusian President Lukashenka held a “public” referendum to replace the country’s constitution by his own constitution which grants him almost unlimited power. Against current law, the constitution, Parliament and the Constitutional Court, the President passed several decrees to ensure his victory in the struggle for power. Special decrees required local leaders to make sure that at least 50% of the votes were cast before the actual referendum day. “Preliminary voting” started two weeks before the referendum. In addition, “sample” ballot papers showing how to vote “correctly” were distributed wherever possible. Lukasenka

Lukashenka’s “victory”

A week prior to the referendum, the President sacked V. Hancar, head of the Electoral Commission – which, according to the constitution, he has no right to do. Hancar had declared that the referendum was illegal due to the infringements of law that had occurred. International observers refused to monitor the referendum because of its unlawfulness. Part of the democratic opposition called upon their supporters to boycott the referendum, since every vote cast increased the potential for ballot rigging. The final results of the referendum were according to the President’s plans. In a country with such massive political censorship as Belarus a different result was impossible. And those who still believe in the legitimacy of the referendum or put the blame on the political naivety or lack of education of the Belarusian electorate should have a look at the answers to questions 6 and 7 proposed by parliament: 6.) Do you favor direct elections of the leaders of local executive bodies by the population of the respective administrative-territorial entity? 7.) Do you agree that financing of all branches of power should be public and only come from the state budget? The answer to both question was no – only 29.9 % vs. in favor for question 6, 32.1 % vs. respectively for question 7.Everything seems to have been in vain: the efforts on part of Parliament and the Constitutional Court to protect the constitution and democracy, the thousands of people who, over the last weeks before the referendum, had demonstrated and held vigils on Independence Square in Minsk in support of Parliament’s position. Chernomyrdin

V.Chernomyrdin congratulated Lukasenka on his victory in the referendum

But there was another important factor – the so-called compromise between Parliament and Lukashenka which was negotiated by Moscow. A visit of the Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and the leading deputies J.Stroev and G.Seleznev to Minsk three days before the referendum finally resulted in the signing of an agreement by the chairman of the Belarusian Constitutional Court, V. Cichinia, and the chairman of Parliament, S. Sarecki. This agreement enabled Lukasenka to hold his referendum. This “compromise” eliminated the last possibility of impeachment, for which the necessary number of parliamentarians’ signatures – 75 – had already been collected. In contrast to other Russian politicians, such as the nationalist Zhirinovsky, the mayor of Moscow Luzhkov and Alexander Lebed, who had openly expressed their support for Lukashenka, the democratic government in Moscow had thus “silently” abandoned their partners in Minsk, as it were, under the fig leaf of the compromise they had initiated. This is a lesson to all Belarusian politicians who had placed their hopes in Yeltsin’s reelection and continued to hope for the support of “democratic Russia”. They hoped that Russia needed a stable partner in the CIS, but it turned out that Russia is more interested in total control of the pipelines to Europe, in a colony governed by an admittedly unpredictable supporter of the USSR, but devoted ally of Russia – the dictator Lukashenka. Unfortunately this was only understood when it was too late – when Lukashenka had already finally and officially eliminated the Constitution which he had already ignored for the two previous years and according to which he could have been called to account. It has thus turned out that Lukashenka has not gone to prison, but Belarus has turned into a prison instead. Now we have to face what the majority of Belarusian politicians failed to see over the past few years – “Russia’s imperial interests in Belarus”. Nobody wanted to speak about it in order not to impair the friendly relations between the Belarusian and Russian people. Too late it was grasped that the leaders in Moscow (not the Russian people!) wanted to keep Lukashenka in power. The Russian government’s policy with regard to parts of what had once been the “one and indivisible” has not changed very much over the centuries.

It is possible that the Russian leaders will now try to convince the West of the legitimacy of Lukasenka’s policies. Nevertheless it would not be right if we forgot to express our gratitude to all foreign journalists, politicians and others, particularly from Russia, whose courageous work supported the attempts to save democracy in Belarus. The main losers are the Belarusian people. For the West, it is probably hard to understand why – if there had really been ballot rigging – there was no major public protest with thousands of people taking to the streets as in Serbia. But do not draw any rash conclusions. You probably have to be born in Belarus to understand the character and behavior of the Belarusian people – this strange submissiveness and passivity. The best part of the people did stand up and mobilized all their forces to resist Lukashenka’s dictatorial policies over the past two years. But now this dictatorship has become the law of the land… Maybe there is one last body which can at least put up some resistance: the Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of the Constitution, which was recently created by the most important political parties in Belarus. Its membership includes about 50 members of the former Parliament, the Supreme Soviet, who have refused to recognize Lukashenka’s “new parliament”. The former chairman of Parliament, S. Sharecki, was elected chairman of the Citizens’ Committee.

In August 1996 Lukashenka declares he intends to hold another referendum on November 7 – the day of the October Revolution 1917. Through this referendum – which is expected to cost millions of dollars – the president plans to introduce his own constitution which will give him almost unlimited powers, such as appointment of the head of the Constitutional Court and part of the parliamentary deputies (For more information please refer to Constitution of the Republic of Belarus (Draft) from President of the Republic of Belarus ) – in spite of the fact that the constitution (which was only passed in 1994) may not legally be altered during its first five years in force.

At the same time seven leading political parties from the whole of the political spectrum from BPF to the communists hold a series of round table talks during which they harshly condemn the president’s unconstitutional actions, which, under the guise of a referendum, seek to lead the country into dictatorship. The president is repeatedly invited to take part in the discussions, but refuses.

The tension heightens when on September 11 the chairman of parliament, Siamion Sharecki, in the independent newspaper “Narodnaja Volia” accuses the president of “preparing the ground for a fascist state.” He starts his article with the words “Our country is on the brink of a fascist dictatorship.”

Siamion Sarecki

Siamion Sharecki – Belarus parliament chairman since 1996

The struggle between president and parliament intensifies. Against the plans of Lukasenka, parliament sets November 24 as date for the referendum and parliamentary by-elections. It also decides to add three of its own questions, proposing its own version of the constitution (draft worked out by the Communist and Agrarian party group). The parliament’s version abolishes the presidency altogether.

Lukashenka, however, chooses to ignore this decision. Uladzimir Zamiatalin, deputy chief of the president’s administration, speaks of an attempted coupe d’etat. In spite of repeated appeals by the Central Electoral Committee, the ministry of finances refuses to make funds available for the by-elections and the referendum planned by parliament.

Lukashenka declares that his referendum will not be financed with taxpayers’ money, but with private donations from a special “referendum fund.” Given the fact that the country’s industry and banking sector are all nationalized, it is not hard to imagine where those funds come from. At Lukashenka’s orders, even 100 million German marks made available by the German government for the victims of World War II in Belarus and transferred on a special account at a private bank in Minsk, were transferred on an account at the state bank.

To gather support for his referendum Lukashenka holds a “Congress of the people of Belarus” in Minsk on October 19. The five thousand participants of this congress are carefully picked by the representatives of the local presidential organs. Lukashenka hopes that the support of “his” Congress will legitimise his referendum and his disregard of parliament. However, criticism of Lukashenka’s behaviour from abroad has grown over the first half of October. The US state department and several European ambassadors condemn the President’s actions. The Russian side also calls upon both sides – the President and parliament – to respect the constitution.


Belarus is thus threatened by international isolation. Lukashenka is forced to agree to postpone the referendum from November 7 to November 24, which he announces at the “Congress of the people of Belarus”. He also concedes to make certain corrections to “his” constitution. The Communist and Agrarian party groups also agree to make several changes to their draft: the position of president is maintained, but the president has to be elected by parliament.

According to a presidential decree, however, voting starts on November 9 already. Order is given to all local leaders to provide a fixed number of votes (and a certain “result”) before November 24, the official referendum date. A week prior to the referendum, the President sacked V. Hanchar, head of the Electoral Commission – which, according to the constitution, he has no right to do. Hancar had declared that the referendum was illegal due to the infringements of law that had occurred.

Parliament reacts by collecting votes for impeaching Lukashenka and succeeds in collecting the necessary number of votes. But before starting an impeachment procedure, Parliament decided to wait for the visit of Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who came to Minsk to mediate the conflict. Moscow urged both parties fo agree on a compromise. This waiting for a solution resulted in a loss of time, so that it was too late to start an impeachment procedure before the referendum. Lukashenka successfully carried out his referendum, the result of which was entirely foreseeable, given Lukashenka’s total control of the media and even of the Electoral Commission …

Three days after the referendum, in the presence of 110 members of the old Parliament, who had sided with Lukasenka, the new constitution was solemnly adopted and consecrated by the Metropolitan of Belarus. The 110 deputies now made up the lower chamber of the new parliament. The senators (members of the upper chamber) were partly appointed by the President (8 senators), partly by the regional authorities (8 senators from each of the 7 regions, including Minsk). (The regional candidates had to be approved by both the regional parliaments and the President’s representatives in the regions.)

At the same time, the results of the by-elections carried out together with the referendum in 61 of the country’s 260 constituencies (which had no members of parliament yet) were ignored. Most of these were large cities.

A group of about 60 members of the old parliament refused to recognize the new parliament and decided to try and continue the work of the old parliament. They founded the Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of the Constitution. The former chairman of Parliament, S. Sharecki, was elected chairman of the Citizens’ Committee. These deputies are now subject to all kinds of pressure. Some of them have lost their jobs, and the Belarusian border guard have been ordered to confiscate their passports should they try to cross the border. The former Speaker S. Sharecki and S. Shushkievich, first Belarusian head of state from 1991-1994, already lost their passports, when they tried to leave for an international conference..

Amnesty International is gravely concerned at reports that about 100 demonstrators have been detained in Belarus, and some of them allegedly ill-treated by the police following a peaceful protest on 10 March 1997 against President Lukashenko’s policies aimed at forging closer ties with the Russian Federation.