The years 1990-1991 were a crossroads of historical epochs for Belarus. During this historically very short period, Belarus experienced several cardinal changes – the collapse of the socialist economy, social and political awakening, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of an independent Belarus, and the start of profound socio-economic and political reforms.
In the late 1980s, Belarus looked like one of the most conservative parts of the USSR on its European territory. This image was formed through the position of the BSSR authorities towards political and social problems in the country during the period of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” under Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The authorities of the BSSR were the least inclined to reform the economy and social structure. The image introduced by the famous Belarusian writer and publicist Ales Adamovich of the conservatism of the Belarusian Soviet elite – “Perestroika Vendée” – became quite popular. After a brutal crackdown by the authorities on 30 October 1988 of the requiem rally “Dziady” (Day of Remembrance of the Ancestors), which was organised by the so-called informal associations (precursors of civil society structures), the designation Vendée became firmly embedded in the policies of the BSSR top brass. During the protest, in which 10 to 20 thousand people gathered, the authorities used water cannons and tear gas and 72 people were arrested. Such a scale of resistance was unusual for this period.
In the meantime, the dynamics of political life in the BSSR rose sharply in the second half of the 1980s during “perestroika”. The publication of an article by Zianon Pazniak and Yauhen Shmagalyou about the burial site of victims of mass shootings at the end of the 1930s in Kurapaty near Minsk in the weekly Litaratura i Mastatstva on 3 June 1988 was a peculiar information explosion. On October 19, 1988 the Historical-Educational Society for the Memory of the Victims of Stalinism “Martirologue Belarus” and the Organizational Committee of the Belarusian Popular Front for Perestroika “Revival” (BPF) were created. The BPF was headed by Zyanon Pazniak, and the spiritual authority of the anti-communist opposition was the famous Belarusian writer Vasil Bykov.
On the one hand, such a conservative policy could for some time slow down the deterioration of the living conditions of the people of Belarus; on the other hand, it did not allow an adequate response to the challenges of the time. A bright example of such a situation was response to the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986. One third of the territory of Belarus was covered with radioactive substances, and nearly one fifth of the country’s population – 2.2 million people – found themselves contaminated land. Over five years, Belarus saw a 22-fold increase in thyroid cancer among children. The Soviet leadership failed to react promptly to the events and to comprehend the scale of the tragedy. Many people who found themselves in the radioactively contaminated zone, but were not subject to mandatory evacuation, were abandoned to their fate. Depression, psychological and social, was one of the most striking phenomena among residents of such regions. Many were forced to save their health and lives by choosing to leave their former places of residence. Subsequently, the Chernobyl problem proved a chronic one for the authorities in Soviet Belarus, both in terms of the lack of objective information and the lack of effective assistance to the victims. The scale of the catastrophe and its tragic consequences are still not fully understood.
Remarkably, amid the collapse of the state’s social policy, a campaign for international humanitarian aid began to unfold, and this is where Belarusian civil society actually originates; the need to distribute this aid and the inefficiency of state structures led to the establishment of the first truly independent civil society organisations.
One of the most affected social groups as a result of the transformations of the late 1980s and early 1990s was the peasantry. The previous system of management in the agrarian sphere centered on large collective farms, had fallen into disrepair. Low efficiency in the agrarian sector was recognised by the Soviet leadership, which used the name “Food Problem” for this purpose. But no clear perspective for the future was offered. Belarusian villagers found themselves in the middle of this economic and social divide, which further aggravated their situation. Although certain signs of a new era began to emerge in the countryside: the emergence and slow spread of larger scale farming.
Another vulnerable group, whose situation has worsened considerably, are workers in large enterprises. This was due to the collapse of the former system of economic management and the sharp decline in production during 1991 and the following years (the country’s GDP in 1995 was 65% of its 1990 level). But the scientific and creative intelligentsia also found themselves in a difficult position. The Soviet system of scientific and cultural organization had provided funding for large scientific and artistic projects from the state, and, in the context of a deepening economic crisis, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for such funding. Many musicians and artists were forced to look for opportunities to work abroad as a means of survival. The same tendency was apparent among scientists and engineers, but many simply left to pursue other occupations which did not require such qualifications. On the other hand, the perception of human rights, which encompassed more than just social rights, began to take shape in the mass consciousness during the Perestroika period.
Meanwhile, the phenomenon of unemployment became prominent during this transition period. No able-bodied demographic or social group of workers escaped unemployment. But unemployment was most widespread among women, with women accounting for 80% of the unemployed in 1991.
Unusual for the inhabitants of Belarus was the great increase in prices. Besides, it occurred in the absence of social protection during the transition to a market economy. On the other hand, the degree of liberalisation of political relations achieved during the years of perestroika enabled different sections of society to assert their rights. On April 3-5, 1991, a number of large Belarusian enterprises stopped their work, about 320,000 workers marched in columns to the Government House in Minsk. Orsha workers took more radical steps – they staged a “sit-in” strike on the railway tracks, thus blocking the movement of trains. In total, according to official data, in 1990 and the first half of 1991, there were 247 protests in Belarus, which were attended by approximately half a million people. Initially the protests were spontaneous, but gradually the labour movement was joined by some political parties and public organisations, which gave the social protests a political dimension.
However, the new forms of ownership and business opened up some faintly tangible prospects. On 26 May 1988 the Law on Co-operation in the USSR was adopted, according to which co-operatives were allowed to trade freely. Joint ventures also started to be set up. Adapting to the new economic reality took time. Meanwhile, inflationary pressures were building up in the country, and a sketchy operation resulted in citizens being effectively deprived of their deposits in the State Savings Bank. The Belarusian authorities announced an anti-corruption crackdown to appease the protest potential, but no success resulted from this policy. Another example of combating economic problems with administrative methods were measures to restrict the export of goods outside Belarus instead of equalising the prices of goods with neighbouring regions and increasing wages at the same time.
However, when speaking about the increasing economic difficulties for many social and socio-cultural groups in Belarus during the Perestroika period, it should be noted that this was a time of social dynamics, relatively open discussions and the belief of many people that achieving a better life was possible. For the first time in recent decades independent public organisations and the beginnings of political parties began to arise. Believers were finally granted religious freedom.
On March 4, 1990, elections to the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR took place, which were the only elections in Soviet Belarus that were held on an alternative basis. As a result, non-Communist forces throughout the history of Soviet power in the BSSR were able to get their candidates to the Supreme Soviet (people’s deputies) and to the local councils. This happened against the background of the decomposition of the central apparatus of state administration; two blocs – the orthodox and the reformists – stood out within the CPB. In June 1991. In June 1991, 33 deputies of the BSSR Supreme Soviet formed the Communists for Democracy faction, headed by Aleksandr Lukashenka.
As a result of internal political processes in the BSSR, deepening of the political and socio-economic crisis in the USSR, legal emancipation of the BSSR was realised in the adoption of the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of the BSSR by the Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on July 27, 1990.
In little more than a year, on August 19-21, 1991, the August putsch – an attempted coup d’etat in the USSR – took place. The authorities of the BSSR actually supported the putschists’ (GKChP) actions. On August 20, a rally of many thousands against the GKChP and the CPSU gathered in front of the Government House in Minsk. Under pressure from the protesters, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich refrained from carrying out the putschists’ orders. The failure of the putsch in Moscow led to rapid achievement of sovereignty for Belarus: on August 25, the Extraordinary Session of the BSSR Supreme Soviet gave the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the BSSR the force of law; the activities of the Communist Party (CPB-CPSU) were suspended. On September 17, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Mikalai Dzemantsei, resigned. On that same day, nuclear physicist and well-known public figure Stanislav Shushkevich was elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. On September 19, 1991 the country received a new name – the Republic of Belarus – and new state symbols – the historic coat of arms “Pogonya” and the white-red-white flag. On 8 December 1991, on the territory of Belarus, representatives of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia signed the Belovezha Accords, which put an end to the existence of the USSR.
In these difficult and contradictory conditions a modern Belarus was born, with its own achievements and failures. Transition created additional problems for vulnerable groups (Chernobyl victims, rural inhabitants and workers of large enterprises, scientific intellectuals, national minorities, etc.). The collapse of the USSR was an ordeal for a large part of the population of Belarus: the destruction of the old, familiar order of life. In macroeconomic terms, an important development took place in 1991: Belarus went from being a major exporter to an importer of commodities. But, as many people admit, 1991 also brought new opportunities for them.
After 1991, a new system of state power was being built, while limited local self-government was introduced. Political parties and new newspapers began to emerge. The establishment of the institutions of a sovereign state was also linked to an important event – Belarus’ renunciation of nuclear weapons. U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Belarus on January 15, 1994 was connected with the preparation of this process. During this official visit, the American president visited Kurapaty, the site of Stalin’s mass executions.
During 1992-1993 the post-communist nomenklatura, which had largely remained in power under Prime Minister Kebic, was able to consolidate. On 26 January 1994, the speaker of parliament Stanislav Shushkevich, who represented a compromise solution to the internal political contradictions in Belarus, was dismissed.
This was accompanied by a general deterioration of the economic situation and the spread of corruption associated with the privatisation of state property. The year 1993 was particularly difficult, with inflation reaching 400% a year. The evolution of wages was as follows: 1990 – 100%, 1991 – 154%, 1992 – 101%, 1993 – 52%, 1994 – 32%. Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich saw salvation for the Belarusian economy almost exclusively through economic integration with Russia.
Social protests intensified: in March-April 1992, miners in Soligorsk went on strike; in May 1992, bus services in Minsk were suspended for three hours. On January 12, 1994, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus organized rallies in Minsk, Mogilev, and Gomel to protest against deterioration of living conditions.
Under these circumstances, the government of Prime Minister Veaceslav Kebic opted to reform the political system by adopting a new constitution and introducing a president with extensive powers. Tension in society culminated in the so-called ‘electoral revolution’ in 1994 (two tours, 23rd of June and 10th of July), when voters rejected the old elites. A relatively free election was won by Alexander Lukashenko. His rise to power signaled the beginning of a radical break in the political system, the construction of a new personalist regime and the winding down of many of the freedoms of the ‘transition’ era.
State system: In 1990, a Soviet republic within the USSR; from the end of 1991, an independent state and a parliamentary republic (until 1994).
Official name: Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic; from 19 September 1991, “Republic of Belarus”.
Territory: 207,600 square km.
Population: in 1991, there were 10,189.8 thousand persons, of which 6,805.1 thousand (66.8%) were urban dwellers and 3384.7 thousand (33.2%) were rural dwellers.
Official languages: Belarusian (declared to be the only state language in 1991) and Russian.
Gross domestic product: $17.12 billion (1992).