The Education Act of 1991 laid the foundation for a new education system, and in 1996 the unit school reform was introduced. There is now 10 years of compulsory schooling for children and adolescents aged 6-16. The primary school is a 4-year old, then a 6-year secondary school. After this, students can continue in secondary school (lyceum) or in 2-year vocational training.
The 1997 curriculum emphasizes general skills and knowledge, and is taught in both Belarusian and Russian. Belarus has 42 state and 15 private higher education institutions.
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The country was now a republic with a president and a 260-seat parliament. Aleksander Lukashenko became the first prime minister when he obtained 45% of the votes cast in the first round of elections in June 1994, in competition with Kebich, which received 17%. After a campaign in which he tore up some of his corrupt predecessors, Lukashenko obtained 80% of the votes cast in the second election round in July.
Despite the criticism he made during his election campaign, Lukashenko continued his predecessor’s rapprochement policy with Moscow, resulting in the establishment of a currency union with Russia in April 1994. Lukashenko met with Yeltsin in August, and in November he introduced an emergency state with the purpose of slowing galloping inflation.
Minsk and Moscow signed a friendship and cooperation agreement in February 1995 that allowed Russia to have troops deployed to Belarus. In the May parliamentary elections, which Lukashenko merged with a referendum on Moscow, the low turnout did not allow all the seats in parliament to be occupied, and therefore a separate election was held in November of that year.
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During the first months of 1996, the opposition organized large-scale demonstrations in protest partly against Lukashenko’s pro-Russian policy and partly against the repression he waged against opposition groups, such as Popular Front. At the commemoration of the anniversary of the founding of the Independent Republic in 1917, thousands of people protested against a union with the Russian Federation.
Impressed by mass demonstrations, Russia and Belarus deepened their relations in April 1996, by signing an agreement on political and economic integration. Several opposition leaders decided to flee to the United States. At the end of the year, the adoption of a constitutional reform meant that Lukashenko was granted additional power. Even the former president of the Central Bank and other senior officials were arrested and the opposition declared that a dictatorship had been introduced.
At the end of the decade, more than 70% of the population lived below the poverty line. The national currency – the ruble – continued its decline against the dollar and inflation increased. Lukashenko resigned his Prime Minister Vladimir Syanko and replaced Ivan Antanovich instead. Amnesty International stated that there were arbitrary executions and illegal arrests and demanded that the government ban the death penalty. In February 1998, Belarus recalled its ambassador to Poland after accusing Poland of meddling in internal Belarusian affairs.
In April 1999, the Senate passed an agreement on integration with Russia, which sparked protests in the southern part of the country, while the northern part – where Russian influence is more pronounced – largely supported the agreement. Among other things, the agreement meant that nationals of the two countries enjoy the same rights on both sides of the border.
The authorities banned a large number of opposition candidates from taking part in the parliamentary elections in October 2000, and the opposition therefore called for a boycott of the elections. Nevertheless, the authorities subsequently announced that the turnout had been sufficient to ensure the composition of a new parliament. According to the Election Commission, attendance had been 60% and further stated that the government party – not surprisingly – had won. Acc. European observers did not meet international standards for conducting democratic elections. “If the West and international observers do not acknowledge the election, it will leave a negative impression on the democratic West, thus showing that they are double-moral,” declared President Lukashenka.
However, following the international criticism, Lukashenka agreed that the March 2001 elections were repeated in 13 districts where turnout had been particularly low. The election result was known by the authorities as valid, and in Mensk, the police campaigned against a protest demonstration with several thousand participants.