The political issues of greatest importance in Belarus, independent since 1991 under the name of Respublika Belarus’, continued to be the institutional structure and relations with Russia and with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, see in this Appendix) of to which Belarus had been a member since December 1991.
Like many states that emerged from the disintegration of the USSR, the Belarus had adopted, despite the opposition of the nationalist Belarusian People’s Front and the head of state S. S̆uškevič, a presidential regime, considered by large sectors of society as a guarantor of internal stability in a phase of political and economic transition. The new Constitution, which came into force in March 1994 to replace the Soviet one of 1978, reduced the number of deputies from 485 to 260and it limited the prerogatives of Parliament by granting ample power of veto to the executive. In June-July of the same year presidential elections were held by direct suffrage, won by the independent A. Lukashenko who appointed M. Chigir, a liberal-oriented economist, to head the government.
According to SMBER, the trend to further strengthen presidential power and extend central control over local administrations caused a conflict between Lukashenko and the parliament that escalated in the following months, when the president announced that four referendums would take place simultaneously with the legislative elections in May. Of the referendums, widely publicized by the media to the detriment of the elections, three aimed to strengthen ties with Russia by promoting greater economic integration and to recall, in an anti-nationalist function, a Belarusian identity closely linked to Soviet history. The fourth, on the other hand, attributed to the President of the Republic the power to dissolve Parliament. The referendum outcome resulted in a ‘ plebiscite adherence to Lukashenko’s policy, which tended to credit the presidency as the only solid institution in the country; on the other hand, the concomitant legislative elections presented a very fragmented political framework. By virtue of the electoral law it took three shifts to be able to allocate the sufficient number of seats based on the quorum required (two thirds); in the meantime Lukashenko governed by decrees, having declared the Parliament elected in 1990 (former Supreme Soviet). The final results led to the allocation of 95 seats to independent candidates, 42 to the Communist Party, 33 to the Agrarian Party (close to the Communist Party) and 28 to smaller groups, while 62 seats remained vacant.
Having assumed almost total control of the media and making extensive use of the police force to suppress any manifestation of dissent, Lukashenko set out to launch new referendums, which actually took place in November 1996, despite the opposition of the Parliament led by S. Saretski of the Agrarian Party. The referendum campaign took place in a climate of intimidation and violence, opposition newspapers were seized, while non-government radio stations were closed. The results, according to official sources, allowed Lukashenko to progress in the construction of a highly centralized and authoritarian regime, giving him the power to legislate through decrees and to control the judiciary through the appointment of presidents and judges of the Supreme and Constitutional Court. Furthermore, the Parliament became bicameral, with a National Assembly of 110 deputies elected by direct universal suffrage for four years and a Council of the Republic of 60 members, of which 52 elected by indirect suffrage and 8 by presidential nomination. In December 1996, new elections were held for the upper house, while in the lower house only those deputies were confirmed who had accepted the constitutional amendments, which had been judged invalid by several deputies gathered in a Committee for the protection of democracy in order to go back to the 1994 charter.
Lukashenko initially sided in favor of the rapid dismantling of the Soviet-style state economy and the introduction of a market economy (under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund). From the mid-nineties, however, privatizations slowed down due to the economic recession in progress since 1993 following the increase in inflation, the decrease in wages and above all the contraction in trade with Russia, the main export market for Belarus.
Russia remained the most important interlocutor for Belarus, both economically and politically, despite the opposition of part of public opinion and of nationalists in particular. In fact, regardless of the relations established with the European Union, the scarcity of energy resources, the dependence of the Belarusian industry on the Soviet military and the damage suffered by agriculture following the Chernobyl nuclear accident encouraged the maintenance of balances. ties with Moscow and, in April 1996, Lukashenko and Yel´cin signed a union treaty which included numerous political, economic and military cooperation agreements. The treaty also provided for the establishment of legislative and executive bodies to strengthen this union, without prejudice to the sovereignty of the member states. Furthermore, during the previous month, Belarus had signed a quadripartite treaty with Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan on the creation of a common market and a customs union which, undoubtedly, marked a step forward in the direction of Belarusian integration into one. regional space comprising part of the former USSR.
While the integration process with Russia was further strengthened by the signing (April 1997) of a new union treaty, relations with other European countries registered a significant deterioration, following condemnation by international bodies, such as the Council of ‘Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of the authoritarian measures adopted by President Lukašenko. During 1997, the political climate in the country deteriorated further and there were arrests of independent journalists and foreign correspondents, as well as political opponents. The crisis in relations between Belarus and the European countries resulted in abandonment, from June 1998 to January 1999, of the country by various diplomatic representations (including British, French, Italian, German) in June 1998.