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History of the Parliament

Parliamentarism is a system of the organization and functioning of the supreme state power in the presence of an elected legislative body – the parliament. The system is characterized by the separation of legislative and executive functions. In the process of its development parliamentarism in the Republic of Belarus has undergone a number of changes connected, firstly, with the status of the republic as a federation subject of the USSR and as a sovereign democratic state and, secondly, with the repeated adoption of constitutions in which the role of a representative and legislative body of the country was defined differently. So, it is possible to identify the following stages in the development of parliamentarism in the Republic of Belarus. 

1st stage - Soviet (1919 – the end of the 1980s – the beginning of the 1990s) 

The First Constitution of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was adopted at the 1st Congress of the Soviets of Belarus on February 3, 1919. Its content was permeated with the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat directly stipulated in the Constitution. The provisions of the Constitution developed the idea of representative democracy and, in particular, it was declared, “All power within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus belongs to the whole working population of the country, united in city and rural Soviets;” “Supreme power in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus belongs to the Congress of Soviets of Belarus, and during periods between the congresses it belongs to the Central Executive Committee.” The Constitution did not explain the rights of the Congress of Soviets of Belarus except the fact that the Congress elects the Central Executive Committee in the number of “no more than 50 persons.” During its operation the Congress of Soviets was specifically the highest representative and legislative body. The Congress was to be convened not less than 2 times a year. A possibility of convening Emergency Congresses of Soviets was also provided for. During the periods between the sessions the supreme power in the republic was the Central executive committee as the supreme legislative, administrative and controlling body. 

The Second Constitution of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was adopted on April 11, 1927 by the VIII All-Byelorussian Congress of Soviets. By that time the USSR had been formed (December 30, 1922); in 1924 the Constitution of the USSR was adopted. It became the basis for the adoption of their main laws by the republics that joined the USSR. The most important innovations in the Constitution of 1927 were the defining of the limitations and rights of the legislative activities of the supreme and central bodies of the state power of Byelorussia in relationship to the powers of the analogous bodies of the USSR, and a more detailed regulation of their status and activities. The Constitution defined specific “subjects of jurisdiction” of the supreme and central bodies of BSSR. The Congress of Soviets of BSSR and the CEC belonged to the supreme bodies of power. Regular congresses of Soviets of the BSSR were to be convened by the CEC once a year. It was established that the CEC is responsible to the Congress of Soviets of BSSR. According to the Constitution, though the Congress of Soviets of BSSR received the definition of the supreme body of power, it still did not have superiority on all legislative issues. The CEC of BSSR was a legislative body on a wide number of questions. Central bodies of power in the republic, the CEC Presidium and the Council of People’s Commissars were also given certain powers in the legislative sphere. During the periods between the sessions of the CEC, the CEC Presidium was “the supreme legislative, administrative and controlling body of power of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.” As a central and permanent body of power the Council of People’s Commissars was a legislative and administrative body of BSSR. 

The Constitution of BSSR of 1937 (adopted on February 19, 1937) played a very important role in the development of parliamentarism. The new Constitution of BSSR fully corresponded to the Constitution of the USSR of 1936. It declared that all power in BSSR belonged to the workers in cities and villages represented by the Councils of deputies of workers and peasants, but the most important issues of state life were part of the authority of the USSR. For the first time the highest state body of the republic was declared the Supreme Soviet (Council), which elected the Presidium and formed the government – the Council of People’s Commissars of BSSR. The election system was significantly changed. It was declared that the elections of the deputies to all the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants' Deputies (the Supreme Soviet of BSSR, regional and district Soviets of deputies, etc.) are held on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. Organization of supreme government organs was also significantly changed. The system of Congresses of Councils ceased to exist. Legislative power started to belong exclusively to the Supreme Soviet of BSSR. The Supreme Soviet worked in sessions, and, therefore, was not a constantly functioning organ. Regular sessions were convened twice a year. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was a constantly functioning supreme government organ. 

If it was necessary, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet could change the existing legislation in between regular sessions with the approval of the changes made by the Supreme Soviet at its regular session. For the first time differentiation between the government organs and central organs of public administration was made. 

It is worth mentioning, however, that the elements of parliamentarism remained insubstantial. The actual lawmaker was the governing organ of the Communist Party. At the sessions of Councils the directives of the Party organs were just put into a legally correct form. House rules, usually temporary, consisted of a certain number of very basic rules of holding a session without any attempts of introducing any qualitatively different parliamentary forms of work. 

In the Constitution of BSSR of 1978 the system of government and public administration organs remained the same. The supreme organs of the government and public administration were, as before, the Supreme Soviets working in sessions and a constantly functioning organ of representative power – the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet of BSSR as the supreme government organ became “authorized to handle all issues that by the Constitution of the USSR and by the present Constitution are under the jurisdiction of Belarusian SSR”. The Supreme Soviet’s exclusive jurisdiction was defined. Thus, the Constitution of 1978 gave the Supreme Soviet priority over all other organs of other branches of power. 

In the 1990s the Constitution of 1978 was becoming an archaic document. To a great extent, this was due to the fact that in the late 1980s and the early 90s public opinion turned towards the problem of independence the former Soviet republics, elimination of one-party monopoly on power, and establishment of political and economical pluralism.  

2nd stage – post-Soviet (1991– Present) 

Revisions of the Constitution of 1978 were directed towards guaranteeing separation of powers, principles of the state based on the rule of law and sovereignty of Belarus.  

On July 27, 1990 the Declaration of the Supreme Soviet “On the State Sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus” was passed. The Declaration declared “full state sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus as supreme, independent and absolute authority over the whole of its territory, power of its laws, and independence of the republic in foreign affairs”. 

The Declaration stimulated the adoption of several new legislative documents of the Republic of Belarus. Many of its ideas were included in the drafts of legal documents being developed (for example, on February 27, 1991 the Law “On the Main Principles of Democracy in the Republic of Belarus” was passed). 

Later, on August 25, 1991 special law gave the Declaration of State Sovereignty the status of constitutional law; modifications and additions based on it were introduced into the Constitution of 1978.  

In these legal and political conditions the new Constitution of the Republic of Belarus was being elaborated. The Constitution was passed on March 15, 1994. According to the Constitution of 1994, the supreme constantly functioning representative and the only legislative body in the Republic of Belarus was the Supreme Council. It consisted of 260 deputies who were elected for a five-year period.

Article 6 of the Constitution guarantees separation of powers in the state between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. State authorities are independent within their powers: they cooperate acting on the principle of checks and balances.

The Constitution of the Republic of Belarus of 1994 assigned the right to pass laws and to pass and review the Constitution to the supreme representative organ. 

The constitutional reform of 1996 was necessary for several objective reasons. From the beginning in the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus of 1994 there was a misbalance of functions and powers of the Supreme Council and the executive power headed by the President of the Republic of Belarus. In contravention of the basic principle of separation of powers, which proceeds from the requirements of equality and independence of the branches of power, the Supreme Council was viewed as the organ dominating, first and foremost, over the executive power.  

Thus, the Supreme Council dominated over the two other branches of power. Not only was it one of the branches of power, it could also determine or change authorities of all other organs. Having the right to change the Constitution and laws, obsolete laws, the Supreme Council had, in fact, unlimited possibilities to make decisions on any issue.   

Therefore, section IV of the new revision of the Constitution, which regulates organization and functions of state authorities – the President, the Parliament, the Government and the courts – was one of the most substantially changed. Specification and redistribution of powers between those organs was done. 

The Constitutional reform of 1996 consisted in establishing a balance of powers between the branches of power. The functions of Head of the State were imposed on the President, the two-chamber Parliament was established (the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic). The role of the Government, the Council of Ministers, was strengthened within the system of branches of power, and its responsibility for the economic situation and the development of national economy, social, cultural and political spheres increased. 

Resulting from the changes and revisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, legislative power is not in a privileged position any more. Now the Parliament has a more appropriate name meaning definitive renunciation of the Soviet model of the supreme government organ. It also has a better structure, which corresponds to the established standards of parliamentarism. 

According to the Constitution of 1996, the representative and legislative organ of the Republic of Belarus is called Parliament – the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus. It consists of two chambers – the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic (article 90). The Constitution guarantees the principle of self-organization of the chambers of Parliament. Each chamber passes its Rules of Procedure, which determine its work (article 105). The chambers of the National Assembly hold sessions separately, except for the prescribed occasions of joint sessions. The chambers do not have a common organ. The only temporary joint organ could be the consultation commission, which is formed by the chambers on a parity basis in order to overcome disagreement between the chambers about a bill declined by the Council of the Republic (part 4, article 100). 

The House of Representatives acts for all citizens of the Republic of Belarus, it legislates the issues listed in article 97 of the Constitution. 

The Council of the Republic is the territorial representative chamber. Along with legislative functions it also exercises other powers listed in article 98 of the Constitution. The Council of the Republic ensures passing laws of higher quality and more thoroughly developed.  

The Constitution of 1996 created a legal basis for the dynamic development of the state and society and effective work of each of the branches of power (legislative, executive and judicial). Today it could be said with confidence that the Parliament of the Republic of Belarus was formed as a mature legislative and representative body, it plays an appropriate role in the constitutional mechanism of the country.