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    Belarus Introduction
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Figure 1. Belarus and Moldova: Geographic Setting, 1995

    LOCATED ON THE WESTERN BORDERLANDS of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the regions that would one day become the republics of Belarus and Moldova had long been part of a buffer zone used to protect Russia from Western influences and military forces. The imperial and Soviet governments attempted to fully integrate the two regions' economies into their own and to Russify their people in order to bind them seamlessly into the their respective empires. For a long time, these efforts seemed to work, but in 1991 Belarus and Moldova declared their independence from the Soviet Union and began to go their separate, post-Soviet ways. Independence was not a totally new experience for the two countries, however, each of which had existed briefly as a sovereign entity during the previous hundred years, but this time they had much to undo from the previous regime.

    The two countries, former republics of the now-defunct Soviet Union, are a study in contrasts. Belarus, mostly ethnic Belarusian (and overwhelmingly Slavic) in population, had long been part of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union. The tsars, and later the commissars, sought to meld Belorussia with Russia and the Belorussians with the Russians. They succeeded to a remarkable extent: independent Belarus still identifies closely with Russia, and Belarusian nationalists are in the minority. Soviet-era political and economic structures, and even symbols, have been retained and even reintroduced, as was the case after the May 1995 referendum that brought back the Soviet-era flag and emblem (both slightly modified) and the Russian language.

    Moldova, a country that had also been part of both empires since the 19th century, has a majority population of ethnic Romanians, who are not Slavs. Despite Russian and Soviet efforts to Slavicize them, most ethnic Romanians were able to maintain their identity and looked to Romania as the source of their culture. When the Soviet Union began to crumble, Moldova asserted first its sovereignty and then its independence, although the population was far from unanimous on either. But the nationalists eventually carried the day, and Moldova sought to distance itself from Russia, despite the wishes of the Transnistrians, who in 1990 proclaimed the "Dnestr Moldavian Republic," with a pro-Soviet extralegal government, on the east bank of the Nistru River. The Transnistrians want no part of independent Moldova, its ethnic- Romanian nationalists, or a possible reunification with Romania, where they would be a small minority instead of a powerful political force.

    In both Belarus and Moldova, there are many who wish to return to the days of the Soviet Union for a variety of reasons, some economic, some nostalgic, and some fearful. In Belarus these conservatives (ethnic Belarusians as well as ethnic Russians) are in the majority and are to be found throughout the population and the government. Their domination is felt not only in the political arena but in the social sphere as well.

    In Moldova the conservatives (mainly, but not exclusively, ethnic Slavs) are located throughout society and the government, but their influence is not as overwhelming as in Belarus. Many of the Moldovan conservatives (although not all) live in Transnistria. Here, they believe, they are the keepers of the Soviet ideal from which a reconstituted Soviet Union will one day rise up again. However, time and the course of events have made it clear that they are trying to protect not a way of life but rather their own political and--especially--economic interests, which are often illegal (including sales of arms and illegal drugs).

    Both Belarus and Moldova have stated their wish to have free market economies, but they have proceeded in this direction at different paces. The economies of both countries had been firmly embedded in the Soviet economy, and each had specialized in a certain sector--Belarus in heavy agricultural equipment and goods for the military, and Moldova primarily in agricultural products and consumer goods--while relying on other republics for raw materials. Both republics had been especially dependent on Russia for inexpensive fuels, a fact that continued to haunt them after independence. Subsidized fuel, priced well below world prices, had made the goods produced by the two countries inexpensive and affordable by the other Soviet republics. With the loss of these cheap fuels, both countries were forced to either decrease their fuel consumption (and their output) or improve the efficiency of their industries. Belarus chose the former path, which coincided with the fact that it was selling fewer of its goods because of price and quality considerations, while Moldova tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to take steps toward improved efficiency.

    Both countries initiated privatization, or the sale of state- owned property, and both were having a difficult time reconfiguring their economies. The Moldovan government was changing its laws to make them more compatible with a free market and more friendly toward foreign investment and business in general. However, vested interests sought to maintain the system or, at least, to make large profits during the transition.

    The Belarusian government decided that, despite its intention to sell state-owned property, it would leave the agricultural sector under state control. The government's reasoning was that Belarusian large-scale agriculture was best suited to the heavy agricultural equipment that the country continued to produce, despite the fact that fuel for this equipment was often scarce.

    Both Belarus and Moldova stated their intention of having democratic political systems, as did many former Soviet republics. However, making the change from a communist government to a real democracy proved difficult, not the least because of officials who wished to maintain the status quo. They viewed democracy as too chaotic and unstable, unlike the predictability that had characterized their previous political lives. They also saw it as risky and feared to lose the perquisites to which they had been entitled and which they wanted to retain.

    Belarus's attempts to become a western democracy often appeared likely to remain out of reach. Although the constitution added the office of the president and declared a separation of powers, government in Belarus often seemed no different from that of the Soviet era. Political apathy among the population remained so strong that a legislature could not be seated after two rounds of elections in 1995; corruption was still widespread despite the fact that the president had campaigned as an anticorruption candidate; and political leaders looked to Moscow for political, military, and financial support, with the president trying to lead the country back into some sort of union with Russia.

    Moldova kept its basic Soviet-era governmental structure, while adding a presidency, universal suffrage, and popular elections, as did Belarus. However, the country's first attempt at a democratically elected parliament showed the need for further modification of the system. The unwieldy size of the body and a hardline nationalist majority made legislative compromises among the various ethnic groups in Moldova impossible, and the result was gridlock. A smaller parliament and a larger number of moderates after the 1994 elections have made legislative progress possible despite the disagreements and factions that are still to be found.

    Despite the differences between the two countries, the focal point for those who wish to maintain each country's independence is the same--the national language, the same rallying point as in the revolutions of 1848, a series of republican revolts against Western and Central European monarchies. These revolts all failed in their immediate goals, but they eventually led to greater representation of ethnic groups in legislatures and to greater cultural autonomy, including the use of languages that, until then, had been dismissed by the authorities as peasant vernaculars. However, while nationalists in the last century sought to codify (and sometimes even form) a literary language, the task of the nationalists in 1991 was to revive that language and divest it of its Russian and Soviet accretions.

    To those who have never undergone forced cultural assimilation, the issue may seem trivial. What difference does it make what language is spoken or what it is called? To those who have had their use of language restricted, however, the matter goes beyond mere defiance. Language is the medium of the culture on which their daily lives and identities are based. To define what language can be spoken is to define the identity of not only the individual but also of the country.

    Moldovans kept Russian as a language of interethnic communication but subsequently entered a debate as to what their own language was to be called: was it Moldovan or Romanian? The president explained that the term "Moldovan" was used in the constitution for political reasons--to assuage the fears of those who feared imminent reunification with Romania (despite the fact that Germany and Austria, for example, which both use the German language, are separate countries). Again, politics, language, and emotions were thoroughly entangled.

    Belarusians, the majority of whom prefer to use Russian in their daily lives, have dealt with the language issue differently. They returned Russian to its status of official language, alongside the Belarusian language, through their response to a May 1995 referendum question. Thus the Belarusian language policy reflected Belarus's pro-Russian policies in general.

    May 31, 1995

    *  *  *

    In the months following preparation of this manuscript, Belarus's president, Alyaksandr Lukashyenka, and his government continued their pro-Russian policies and their Soviet-era mentality. When Orthodox Patriarch Aleksey II of Moscow and All Russia visited Belarus in July, Lukashyenka praised the Orthodox Church while reproaching the Roman Catholic Church for its active proselytizing and politicking. When subway workers in Minsk went on strike in August, the government sent special police units and Ministry of Interior troops against them. In addition, Lukashyenka reacted angrily to information that United States and Polish trade unions, including Solidarity, were providing financial assistance to the striking workers through Belarusian nongovernmental unions. Also in August, the president ordered that books published in 1992- 95 be removed from secondary schools and institutes of higher education. In other words, these schools would return to using Soviet textbooks.

    Lukashyenka also continued arrogating power to himself. His unilateral decisions, including suspending parliamentary immunity, outlawing strikes in sectors he deemed critical, banning the activity of two trade unions until further notice, withholding the salaries of parliamentary deputies, and making arbitrary changes in the state budget, paint a picture of a leader seeking to replace the separation of governmental powers with one-man rule. However, it was only after Lukashyenka's decision to suspend parliamentary immunity that the Supreme Soviet spoke up and petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of his measures. A constitutional crisis appeared unavoidable unless the two sides could come to an agreement.

    Perhaps the most dramatic indication that the Soviet mentality is alive and well in Belarus was the hot-air balloon tragedy in September. A yearly international hot-air balloon race starting in Switzerland included three United States balloons that crossed the border into Belarus. Although Belarusian authorities had been notified of the race earlier, the Belarusian military fired at one of the balloons, claiming that it did not have any identification and that sensitive military installations were nearby. The two American pilots of the balloon were killed when a missile caused their hydrogen-filled balloon to explode. The pilots of a second balloon left the country before any problems arose, but authorities detained the pilots of the third balloon for a day before releasing them. The Belarusian government issued an official apology for the shooting that accepted "a certain amount" of blame but nevertheless tried to justify the military's response. Many people were convinced that this would not be the last manifestation of Belarus's Cold War mentality.

    At the same time, events in Moldova centered on two men --Lieutenant General Aleksandr Lebed', commander of the Russian 14th Army, and Mircea Snegur, Moldova's president. The Russian 14th Army, previously the Soviet 14th Army, remained in Transnistria after the Soviet Union was dissolved to protect the ethnic Russians in what Moscow called "the near abroad." Despite their ostensible status as peacekeepers in Moldova's dispute with Transnistria, the 14th Army supported the extralegal government of the "Dnestr Republic" and was even accused of supplying weapons to it during the worst of the fighting in 1992.

    At the beginning of June, Lebed' offered his resignation in protest of Russian government plans to downgrade the status of the 14th Army to that of an operational group. After initially refusing the general's resignation, the Russian Ministry of Defense accepted it and replaced him with Major General Valeriy Yevnevich. The Moldovan government's concern was that the new commander continue to keep the army's large stock of weapons safe while a political solution was sought for the problems in Transnistria. Lebed' was seen by some as a strong candidate for the Russian presidency in 1996, but his popularity began decreasing once he resigned and removed himself from the public eye.

    In a surprising move in July, President Snegur resigned his membership in the ruling Democratic Agrarian Party of Moldova and took his supporters with him to form a new presidential party, later named the Party of Rebirth and Conciliation. By dividing the Agrarians and depriving them of a parliamentary majority, as well as by considering an alliance with a pro-Romanian party, the president had made moves that could disrupt Moldova's political stability. The purpose of these actions was twofold. The first was preparation for the December 1996 presidential election in which Snegur will seek to win on the strength of the ethnic Romanian vote. His two challengers, Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli and Parliament chairman Petru Lucinschi, are expected to capture the votes of Moldova's Russian-speaking population, thus making Snegur dependent on the ethnic Romanians.

    Snegur's other purpose in creating the new party was an effort to change the government to that of a personalized presidential regime, a move opposed by Parliament. This regime would be different from the existing government and would be at odds with Moldova's political traditions. Under a presidential regime, the existing balance of power between the legislative and executive branches would be disrupted, and, critics charge, the country's progress toward democracy would be jeopardized.

    In Transnistria the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The authorities of the "Dnestr Republic" sought greater political legitimacy in hopes that this would help them garner more political support and financial assistance from Russia. To this end, the authorities began drafting a constitution and election law in August in preparation for parliamentary elections scheduled for late fall 1995. In the meantime, bread rationing was introduced in Tiraspol and its suburbs in late August.

    A more important event also began in August--the wind-down of the operational group of Russian troops in Transnistria. A withdrawal of these troops was part of a "gentleman's agreement," reached in October 1994 between Russia and Moldova, that sought a political solution to the stand-off between the "Dnestr Republic" and the rest of Moldova, but that was approved only by Moldova. However, until the Russian State Duma (the lower house of the parliament) approved the agreement, matters would remain at a standstill.

    In mid-August the commander, Valeriy Yevnevich, now promoted to lieutenant general, began to transfer nonmilitary equipment from the operational group to Transnistrian civilian authorities. Work also began on the destruction of old munitions (some manufactured before 1940) that could not be transported to Russia. Several trainloads of surplus military equipment were to be sent to Russia as well. At the same time, there was a cutback in the number of the operational group's officers and support staff. But because the Russian Duma had not yet ratified the withdrawal of the operational group, military authorities were calling this a "redeployment" of forces and equipment rather than an actual "withdrawal."

    In September, Igor' N. Smirnov, president of the "Dnestr Republic" addressed the Russian State Duma and made an appeal for official recognition of the "Dnestr Republic." President Snegur of Moldova protested this move and continued to place his confidence in political negotiations. Smirnov, on the other hand, hoped to drag out talks until after Russian parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 1995, in an effort to get more support from the new parliament, which he hoped would be more sympathetic to the Transnistrians' cause.

    September 29, 1995
    Helen Fedor

    Data as of June 1995

    NOTE: The information regarding Belarus on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Belarus Introduction information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Belarus Introduction should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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