Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 16

On July 29 in Minsk, the national-democratic opposition held a General Belarusan Congress and adopted an Independence Act. The country’s best-known literary authors–including Vasyl Bykau, Ryhor Baradulin, Yanka Brill, Henadz Buravkin and Nil Hylevich–had initiated this congress. Some 1,400 delegates, most of them elected at local levels throughout the country, attended the congress on behalf of political parties, NGOs and independent professional organizations. The Minsk envoys of Western countries and of neighboring Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine accepted invitations to be present in the hall. The Russian embassy declined.

The Independence Act describes national statehood and democratic government as inalienable rights of the Belarusan people. It warns the world that the Belarusan state is threatened with disappearance as a result of the unification treaties, signed by the successive presidents of Russia with their counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It asserts that the incumbent president–whose legal term of office expired one year ago–and his appointed parliament have no authority to abridge or abandon sovereign statehood and enter into union treaties. The Act declares such treaties as invalid from the outset. And it reminds the Belarusan people that only national independence can open the way for Belarus to join Europe, the democratic world and the international economic system. While ruling out any absorption of Belarus into Russia, the document calls for good-neighborly relations with that country as well as with Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states. Citing the neutral status of Belarus under the 1994 constitution, the Act appeals to the governments and parliaments of the democratic world to support the national sovereignty of Belarus. The General Congress pledged to defend that sovereignty if necessary and to reconvene in case of new threats to Belarusan statehood.

Stanislau Shushkevich, chairman of the legislature which proclaimed sovereignty in 1990 and the first head of state of post-Soviet Belarus, declared during the congress that Russia does not need to absorb Belarus in order to develop: “What Russia needs is a decent Russia. And for that, it needs not to expand like an empire, but to bring things in order at home.” Shushkevich’s exiled successor and ally, Syamyon Sharetsky, was involved in the preparations for the congress from his place of refuge in Vilnius. Sharetsky announced that the legitimate parliamentary leadership, which was forcibly deposed by Lukashenka in 1996, will continue exercising its constitutional mandate after the parliamentary elections which Lukashenka will stage this coming October. Those elections are virtually certain to be declared invalid by the democratic countries because Lukashenka has precluded the opposition’s participation on free and fair terms.

The General Congress was timed to the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of Belarusan state sovereignty by the legislature in 1990–an event that the present authorities seek to erase from the public memory. The General Congress, furthermore, acted as a successor to the similarly named congress of 1918, which had proclaimed the Belarusan National Republic and elected the government of that short-lived state. Highlighting that continuity, the July 29 congress underscored the fact that enforced russification under Soviet and neo-Soviet rule had not extinguished the national aspiration to independent statehood.