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Belarus, officially Respublika Belarus (Republic of Belarus), landlocked republic in east central Europe, bordered by Russia to the east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and the Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania to the northwest. Belarus has a generally flat terrain with many forests, lakes, and marshes. Nearly 80 percent of its people are ethnic Belarusians, and about three-quarters of its population live in urban centers. Belarus has a centrally planned economy dominated by state-controlled heavy industry. Its government is a presidential republic in which the executive is the chief authority. The capital and largest city is Minsk, located in the center of the country. Since medieval times Belarusian territory was under foreign rule, and in the 18th century it was annexed by the Russian Empire. Belarusian national and cultural development made major strides only from the mid-19th century. Belarus was established in 1919 as the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), which in 1922 became one of the four founding republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In August 1991 Belarus declared its independence, contributing to the collapse of the USSR in December.
LAND AND RESOURCES
Geography of Belarus
207,595 sq km 80,153 sq mi 0 km 0 mi Mount Dzyarzhynskaya 346 m/1,135 ft
Coastline Highest point
The total area of Belarus is 207,595 sq km (80,153 sq mi). Generally level terrain is disrupted by a series of highlands that run from northeast to southwest. Belarus has four additional discernible geographic regions: an area of lakes, hills, and forests in the north; an agricultural region with mixed-conifer forests in the west; a broad elevated plain in the east; and the Poles’ye (also called the Pripet Marshes), a lowland of rivers and swamps that extends into Ukraine, in the south. The country’s highest point, Mount Dzyarzhynskaya (346 m/1,135 ft), is located in an upland area just southwest of Minsk.
Rivers and Lakes
Poles’ye, Belarus A river winds through the Poles’ye, or Pripet Marshes, in southern Belarus. The topography of the Poles’ye is generally flat, and about one-third of the region is forested. Maria Soderberg/Panos Pictures
The Dnieper (known as the Dnyapro in Belarus) is the largest river in Belarus; it flows southward, almost the entire length of the country in the east, passing through the city of Mahilyow. Its important tributaries are the Pripyat’ in the south and the Berezina in the central region. Another major river is the Daugava (Western Daugava), which flows westward from Russia through the northern tip of the republic. The Neman (known as the Nyoman in Belarus), also a west-flowing river, links the western part of Belarus with Lithuania. The Bug, a northward-flowing river along the country’s southwestern border with Poland, is linked at the city of Brest to a canal that connects with the Pripyat’ and subsequently the Dnieper. Belarus has thousands of lakes, the largest of which is Lake Narach in the northwest.
Plant and Animal Life
Peat bogs and marshland cover about 25 percent of the country, while the soil of about 70 percent of Belarusian territory is podzolic (acidic with fairly large amounts of iron oxides). The forest region, though extensive, is not contiguous. Coniferous forests predominate, with pine the principal tree; spruce, oak, birch, alder, and ash trees also are found. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Puszcza Białowieska) Reserve in the southwest is part of the oldest existing European forest and the sanctuary of the virtually extinct European bison, or wisent. Belarus has more than 70 mammal species, including deer, fox, wild pig, wolves, and the common squirrel. There are 280 bird species, including doves, kestrels, wrens, bullfinches, and woodpeckers. Forests contain grass snakes and vipers, while rivers are the habitat of fur-bearing animals such as mink and otter.
Belarus is relatively poor in terms of natural resources. It has plentiful peat deposits, which are used for fuel and as a mulching material in agriculture. In the southwest there are small reserves of hard coal, brown coal, and petroleum, but they are not easily accessible and remain undeveloped. Belarus also has deposits of potassium salt, limestone, and phosphates. About one-third of the republic is covered in forest.
Belarus has a temperate continental climate, with cool temperatures and high humidity. Average annual precipitation is between 550 and 700 mm (22 and 30 in), with the highest amount occurring in the central region. Generally in Belarus there is precipitation every two days, in the form of either rain or snow. In January the average temperature is -6°C (21°F), and in July it is 18°C (64°F). Extreme temperatures are sometimes experienced in the north, where frosts of below -40°C (-40°F) have been recorded.
The cities of Belarus are heavily polluted, especially industrial centers such as Salihorsk and Navapolatsk, largely because of the development of heavy industries in the years following World War II (1939-1945). Automobile exhaust is now the source of about half the air pollution in the cities. While Belarus was a part of the USSR, government controls on industrial pollution were virtually nonexistent. In recent years the government has turned its attention to the problem, although somewhat belatedly. Energy conservation and recycling have yet to be implemented in any sustained manner. The most serious environmental problem in Belarus is the contamination from the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, 16 km (10 mi) south of the Belarusian border. More than 60 percent of the high-level radioactive fallout of cesium, strontium, and plutonium that was spewed into the atmosphere landed in Belarus, affecting about one-fifth of its territory and more than 2 million of its people. The explosion initially posed its greatest threat in the air, as winds immediately carried the radioactive plume over Belarus. Long-lived radioisotopes then settled in the soil, posing a long-term danger to groundwater, livestock, and produce. More than 160,000 Belarusians were evacuated from their homes in the most heavily contaminated regions of Homyel’, Mahilyow, and Brest. In the villages in the contaminated zones, food and other goods are now in short supply and radiation-linked diseases are on the rise. Belarus is an extensively wooded country, with pine, fir, and birch dominant in the north, and oak, elm, and white beech prevalent in the south. Little of the country’s woodland is protected, however; in total, 4.2 percent of Belarus’s land area is protected. Biodiversity, soil pollution, and other related issues are areas of concern. Another area of concern is the number of threatened species. For example, wisents were once plentiful in Belarus but are now endangered and protected by government decree. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to air pollution, biodiversity, environmental modification, and ozone layer protection.
THE PEOPLE OF BELARUS
People of Belarus
Population Population density
9,724,723 (2007 estimate) 47 persons per sq km 121 persons per sq mi (2007 estimate) 28 percent (2005 estimate)
Urban population distribution 72 percent (2005 estimate) Rural population distribution Largest cities, with population Minsk, 1,699,100 (2001 estimate) Homel’, 480,000 (2001 estimate) Mahilyow, 360,600 (2001 estimate) Official languages Chief religious affiliations Belarusian, Russian Eastern Orthodox, 49 percent Roman Catholic, 13 percent
Atheist, 9 percent Life expectancy Infant mortality rate Literacy rate 70 years (2007 estimate) 7 deaths per 1,000 live births (2007 estimate) 99.7 percent (2005 estimate)
Minsk, Belarus The city of Minsk came under Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian control at various points in its history. During World War II Germans occupied the city from 1941 to 1944. Today Minsk is the capital, as well as the economic and cultural center, of the independent republic of Belarus. RIA-NOVOSTI/SOVFOTO-EASTFOTO
In the last complete census conducted in the Soviet Union in 1989, the population of Belarus was 10,151,806; a 2007 estimate was 9,724,723, giving the country a population density of 47 persons per sq km (121 per sq mi). The most notable demographic trend since the 1950s has been the steady migration of the population from the villages to urban centers, and the correspondent aging of the population remaining in the rural areas. In 1959 urban residents accounted for 31 percent of the population; in 1979 they accounted for 55 percent; and in 2005 they accounted for about 72 percent. The most populated cities are Minsk, the capital and largest city; Homyel’; Mahilyow; Vitebsk; Hrodna; and Brest. All of these cities are industrial centers. Minsk, Homyel’, and Hrodna have universities.
Ethnic Groups and Languages
The people of Belarus are composed of mainly five ethnic groups. In the 1989 census, people of Belarusian descent comprised 77.9 percent of the population. Russians were the largest minority group with 13.2 percent of the population. Other minorities included Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews (considered both an ethnic and a religious group). No significant tensions exist between these groups, and many residents of Belarus feel some cultural affinity to Russia. In 1990 Belarusian was designated the official state language. In 1995, after a national referendum on the subject, Russian also was elevated to a state language. Belarusian and Russian, along with Ukrainian, form the eastern branch of the Slavic languages of the Indo-European language family. More than 90 percent of the population has native fluency in Russian, which was promoted by the state during the Soviet period. Belarusian is commonly spoken in rural areas, but in urban centers it is rarely heard.
Many Belarusians follow the Eastern Orthodox religion, though there are large enclaves of Roman Catholics, particularly in the Hrodna region of western Belarus. Smaller groups adhere to the Eastern (Uniate) Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim faiths, among others. The government has adopted the Eastern Orthodox faith as the official state religion. Church services are well attended, particularly Easter services, for which there are three separate holidays.
Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. Higher education institutions include three universities, the largest of which is the Belarusian State University (founded in 1921) in Minsk. There also are a number of specialized academies and institutes for studies in technical arts, agriculture, medicine, economics, and other fields. The literacy rate is 100 percent. While the current literacy rate is high, only about 30 percent of the population was literate in 1919. The Soviet regime emphasized compulsory education and claimed to have eliminated illiteracy by the 1950s. At the same time, after the 1920s there was little provision for education in the Belarusian language. In the post-World War II years, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the culture of the republic was thoroughly Russified through government policies that emphasized the Russian language. Schools that taught in the Belarusian language were closed, primarily in rural areas. The process of Russification was reversed somewhat between 1985 and 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev was leader of the USSR, and in the early 1990s. Since the mid-1990s, however, the government has attempted to put an end to the revival of the Belarusian language by advocating Russian as the language of education, particularly in higher institutions. The government has also reviewed all school textbooks for content, denouncing those with antiSoviet viewpoints and planning for the return of some Soviet texts.
Way of Life
The population remains deeply influenced by the Soviet period, retaining its heroes and legends. Belarusians generally revere the past, and former Soviet government leaders tend to dominate society, living in superior apartments and using personal chauffeurs. There also is a small new business-oriented elite with similar privileges. Movements for civil rights and women’s liberation have barely penetrated the social fabric. Belarusians are fond of sports and excel in gymnastics and rowing. Soccer, basketball, and ice hockey are also popular. Belarus maintains cultural facilities in Minsk and other cities. Such amenities are not available in rural areas, where social occasions tend to be family-centered. The people of Belarus generally hold close family contacts.
The post-Soviet period has been marked by a dramatic drop in the standard of living for the majority of the population. Wages have been distributed erratically and have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Food supplies, though plentiful, are priced beyond the reach of many. Poverty has now embraced more than half the population, and difficult economic times appear to have exacerbated the degree of alcoholism. Meanwhile, much of the country’s new business of the early 1990s was first impeded by high taxation and customs duties and subsequently taken over by organized crime elements. Many city residents live in dilapidated apartment blocks that were constructed mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. The health care system has attracted international attention because of the ramifications of the Chernobyl’ disaster, but
hospitals still lack basic equipment, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines. Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and diphtheria, are common, and the infant mortality rate is about double the United States average. There has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of thyroid gland cancer among children since the Chernobyl’ disaster. Most of the cases reported each year are among children who were living in the Homyel’ or Brest regions at the time of the explosion. Since 1995 the government has increased restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religions. In 1995 and 1996 there were frequent and violent clashes between those opposing the president’s policies—particularly members of the main opposition movement, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF)—and the militia. Repression of all government criticism continued in 1997 and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up an office in Minsk to monitor human rights issues.
Belarusian culture developed most notably from the mid-19th century. In the late 1920s, the Soviet regime began to control cultural expression by imposing the dogma of socialist realism, which required all artists and writers to depict only the positive aspects of Soviet society. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, state control of the arts has continued in Belarus. The Ministry of Culture carries out oversight functions such as the screening of written works prior to publication. Studies of Belarusian national culture have been hindered since the mid-1990s because of the state’s reversion to Russian-oriented cultural activities.
In the early 1900s, poets Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas promoted the literary use of the Belarusian language, which was banned within the Russian Empire until 1905. Their works are considered the classics of Belarusian literature. Many Belarusian writers were prominent in the 1920s, including Mitrofan Donvar-Zapolsky and Ales’ Harun. By the 1930s “national” literature, which promoted the idea of Belarusian nationhood, was largely displaced by Soviet literature dedicated to the glorification of the regime. This development was particularly marked during and after World War II, when socialist realism was blended with patriotic accounts of the partisans and events of the war. The main literary figures of Belarus today can be demarcated along generational lines. A senior group of writers includes those who experienced the war, including Vasil Bykov, author of numerous novels about that era and a pioneer of the East European variant of literary existentialism. This group also includes Yanka Bryl, an essayist and author whose works focus more on Western Europe. The middle generation includes poets Rygor Borodulin and Nila Gilevicha and dramatist Aleksey Dudarev. The younger group of literary figures includes poet Leonid Dran’ko-Maysyuk, and Vladimir Orlov and Pyotr Vasyuchenko, who write historical and experimental prose, respectively.
Music, Dance, and Theater
Belarus’s opera and ballet companies have long-standing reputations. Their primary venue, the Opera and Ballet Theater (founded in 1932) in Minsk, holds regular and well-attended performances. The popular Theater of Musical Comedy (1970) is also located in the capital, as is the Belarusian Musical Academy (1932). Of the many orchestras in the country, the most prominent are the Belarusian State Philharmonic and the Belarusian State Symphony Orchestra. The state musical repertoire is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture. The leading drama theater in Belarus is the Yanka Kupala Belarusian State Academic Theater (1920), located in Minsk. Other major theaters include the Gorky Russian Theater (1932) in Babruysk, and the Yakub Kolas Belarusian State
Academic Theater (1925) in Minsk. The avant-garde Minsk theater Vol’naya Stsena (Free Stage) opened in 1990 to focus on Belarusian drama and classics.
Libraries and Museums
The National Library of Belarus, noted for its selection of Belarusian literature, is the country’s largest library. This and other large libraries are located in Minsk. In addition, there are about 5,500 smaller libraries in the country. Museums in Belarus include the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Belarus State Art Museum, and the National Museum of the History and Culture of Belarus, all located in Minsk. Several museums are dedicated to renowned writers such as Yakub Kolas, and others focus on Soviet-era political figures such as Petr Masherov. A small museum in Minsk denotes the meeting place of the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898; after a split into two factions, the Bolshevik wing of this group eventually evolved into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Economy of Belarus
Gross domestic product (GDP in U.S.$) $30 billion (2005) GDP per capita (U.S.$) Monetary unit Number of workers Unemployment rate $3,024.40 (2005) 1 Belarusian ruble (Rbl), consisting of 100 kopeks 4,775,946 (2005) 3 percent (2002)
Reforms toward a market economy have been suspended since 1994 in a government effort to maintain Soviet-style centralization. Most industries, including manufacturing and farming, are state owned and operated. In 1996 the private sector’s share of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at 15 percent, the lowest of all Eastern European countries. High average annual rates of inflation between 1991 and 1996 severely impeded economic growth and drove up prices for food and services. In the same period annual output declined in almost all sectors of the economy. The 2005 GDP of Belarus was an estimated $29.6 billion. Trade and other services accounted for 49 percent of GDP; industry, including mining and manufacturing, 41 percent; and agriculture and forestry, 10 percent. Approximately 4.8 million people contribute to the economy of Belarus. Of the labor force, 35 percent are employed in industry; 21 percent in agriculture and forestry; and 40 percent in services such as trade and transportation. Unemployment is officially estimated at 3 percent, but underemployment and irregular wage patterns are common.
Machine Factory, Belarus Industry is an important contributor to the economy of Belarus. The country’s industrial sector is diversified, and principal industries include machine and motor-vehicle production. This factory produces machines in Minsk, the republic’s industrial center. NOVOSTI/SOVFOTO-EASTFOTO
Manufacturing contributes most of the country’s industrial output. The most important manufactured products are tractors, transport vehicles, motorcycles, refrigerators, television sets, and metal-cutting machines. An increase in the cost of fuel from Russia and a decrease in demand for Belarus’s industrial products, especially military supplies, facilitated a steady decline in gross industrial output between 1991 and 1995. Industry in Belarus mainly developed in the Soviet period, particularly in the 1930s. After World War II, industry in Belarus was significantly modernized, and the country maintained high production levels for many years. Today the country’s industry suffers from inefficiency and outdated equipment.
Collective Farmers in Belarus Members of a collective farm harvest potatoes in the Poles’ye region of Belarus. Collective farms and state farms created during the Soviet period continue to control most of the farmland in Belarus. Maria Soderberg/Panos Pictures
Collective and state farms established during the Soviet period remain the dominant forms of agricultural production in Belarus. The principal crops are potatoes, grains (especially barley and rye), and sugar beets. Cultivated land accounts for 26 percent of the country’s land use. The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power station in Ukraine contaminated much of the soil in southern Belarus, reducing the country’s total area of arable land by more than 10 percent.
Although Belarus possesses valuable stands of forest, the forestry industry is underdeveloped, with forest and woodland contributing a negligible amount of the country’s land use. The timber-producing areas and most sawmills are located in the Minsk, Brest, and Homyel’ regions. Forestry products include furniture and plywood.
During the Soviet period, the service industry employed only about 5 percent of the workforce. This sector of the economy remains largely underdeveloped. State-owned stores offering relatively low-quality goods predominate, although new supermarkets are opening at an increasing rate. Private stores are limited mainly to small kiosks, or freestanding merchandise booths, on the sidewalks. The number of restaurants in the major cities has risen markedly only in Minsk. The first McDonald’s fast-food restaurant opened in Minsk in December 1996, but investment by Western firms has generally been limited.
Belarus generates only about 12 percent of its own energy needs. It is heavily reliant on oil and gas supplies from Russia. These fuel imports reach Belarus via two major pipelines: the Friendship Pipeline carrying oil, and the Natural
Lights Pipeline carrying natural gas. The price of these resources has risen considerably since 1991, and Belarus has carried a debt to the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, despite reducing its import quantity by about half. The country has two oil refineries, at Mazyr and Polatsk.
Transportation and Communications
Belarus has an extensive road and rail network with some 5,498 km (3,416 mi) of railroads and 93,055 km (57,822 mi) of roads. The system is geared primarily to former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries. The major railroad, which was built in the 1860s to connect Moscow and Warsaw, runs through Belarus via Minsk and Brest. The best-quality road in Belarus is that which links Moscow with Warsaw. Belarus has four international airports, the largest of which is Minsk-2, located about 50 km (about 30 mi) east of Minsk. Although Minsk-2 serves airlines from Germany, Austria, Poland, Scandinavia, and other countries, the airport operates well below capacity. Belarus derived a national airline, Belavia, from the former Soviet Aeroflot planes it inherited when the USSR was dissolved. The state owns and operates all principal daily newspapers and the National State Television and Radio Company, as well as nearly all the country’s printing and broadcasting facilities. Since taking office in 1994, the president of Belarus has replaced editors of several state-owned newspapers with his own appointees and placed the legislature’s newspaper under the control of the executive branch. In 1996 the government restricted freedom of the press in an attempt to stifle political opposition. Though some small independent weekly newspapers still publish in Minsk, all of the large dailies are organs of the Council of Ministers and reflect the views of that government body.
Belarus exports transport equipment (mainly tractors), machinery, chemicals, and foodstuffs. Imports include fuel, natural gas, industrial raw materials, textiles, and sugar. Fuel is Belarus’s largest import expenditure. Russia, which supplies most of the country’s fuel imports, is the most important trading partner. Other customers for the exports of Belarus are Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; sources for imports in addition to Russia are Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Lithuania. In 1992 Belarus became a member of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In 1996, however, the World Bank and the IMF suspended aid because of the government’s decision to halt privatization reforms.
Currency and Banking
The unit of currency is the new Belarusian ruble (26,500 rubles equal U.S.$1; 1997), introduced in August 1994 and equivalent to ten old rubles. It has been the official national currency since January 1995, when circulation of Russian rubles ceased. In April 1994 Belarus and Russia agreed to the eventual merger of their monetary systems, but Russia has delayed the merger because of the high inflation and other economic problems in Belarus. In early 1998 the Belarusian ruble plunged in value, partly because of the government printing money to lend inefficient state enterprises. The central bank is the National Bank of Belarus in Minsk.
Belarus adopted its first post-Soviet constitution in 1994. Under the constitution, a popularly elected president replaced the chairperson of the unicameral (single-chamber) legislature, called the Supreme Soviet, as head of state. The president had the power to dismiss the prime minister and members of the Council of Ministers but not to dissolve the legislature or other elected governing bodies. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was elected in the first presidential election of 1994, called a referendum in 1996 on a proposal to broaden his presidential authority (including the power to dissolve the legislature), extend his term from five to seven years, and create a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature. According to official tallies, more than 70 percent of voters approved the proposed changes. Despite widespread allegations of vote fraud, Lukashenka immediately dissolved the opposition-led Supreme Soviet and created a new legislature composed of his supporters. He also signed the changes into law as constitutional amendments. All citizens have the right to vote from the age of 18.
Under the constitution a president is the head of state of Belarus. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government, with the approval of the lower house of the legislature, the House of Representatives. The president also appoints and dismisses the ministers who make up the government. Presidential appointments also largely determine the members of the judiciary and the Central Electoral Commission. Amendments to the constitution in 1996 invested the president with the power to dissolve the legislature. In 2004 a constitutional amendment abolished a provision limiting the president to two consecutive terms in office.
Under the 1994 constitution, Belarus was to have a unicameral legislature (Supreme Soviet) of 260 members elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of five years. Under the constitutional amendments of 1996, the Supreme Soviet was replaced by a bicameral National Assembly, consisting of the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Council of the Republic (upper house). The 110 members of the House of Representatives are directly elected by the people. The Council of the Republic is made up of 64 members; 56 are chosen by regional councils and 8 are appointed by the president. The term of office for members of both houses is four years.
The judicial system of Belarus consists of three high courts: the Supreme Court, the Economic Court, and the Constitutional Court. The latter court is charged with protecting the constitution, and its decisions are not subject to appeal. It has the power to review the constitutionality of presidential edicts and the regulatory decisions of the other two high courts. As amended in 1996, the constitution allows the president to appoint 6 of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court, including its chairperson; the Council of the Republic appoints the remaining members. The president also appoints judges to all other courts of the republic, including the Supreme Court and Economic Court.
Belarus is divided administratively into six oblasts, which have the same names as their largest cities. The Minsk, Hrodna, Homyel’, Mahilyow, Vitebsk, and Brest oblasts are each divided into smaller administrative districts, called rayony. The oblasts have their own councils for the administration of regional affairs. In addition, the president has appointed a plenipotentiary, or diplomatic agent, in each oblast to report local affairs to the executive.
The political opposition has little voice in Belarus. Parties supporting President Lukashenka dominate government and the legislature. Opposition parties have had little success in elections, which have drawn international criticism for failing to meet the standards of a democracy. Pro-government parties include the Agrarian Party, the Communist Party of Belarus, the Belarusian Patriotic Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus. Opposition parties include the BPF-Revival (formerly the Belarusian Popular Front, founded as a pro-reform movement in 1988), the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (National Assembly), the Belarusian Social Democratic Assembly, the United Civic Party, and the Party of Communists of Belarus.
Health care in Belarus is state operated and free of charge. Hospitals are generally undersupplied by Western standards, and pharmaceuticals are scarce. Higher-quality medical facilities can be found in hospitals and clinics under city jurisdiction. The Chernobyl’ disaster’s impact on the health of the population has severely strained the country’s limited health-care system.
Military service is compulsory for all males for 18 months beginning at the age of 18. In 2004 the army was composed of 29,600 troops and the air force had 18,170 troops. There is no navy. In addition to the regular army, Belarus maintains a border guard with about 8,000 members. Belarus inherited more than 500 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads when the USSR was dissolved in 1991. In 1992 Belarus signed a protocol in which it agreed to implement the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and to adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In December 1996 Belarus completed the process of deporting its nuclear warheads to Russia, where they were to be dismantled.
Belarus is a member of approximately 50 international organizations, most notably the United Nations (UN), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the World Health Organization (WHO). In early 1995 Belarus joined the Partnership for Peace program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a plan designed to promote military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO states.
Human settlement in Belarusian territory dates to prehistoric times, but there is no consensus among scholars on the origins of the Belarusian state. The three early Slavic tribes from which the Belarusians are believed to have derived are the Krivichi, Dregovichi, and Radimichi, who between the 6th and 8th centuries settled first on the Daugava (Western Daugava) River and later in the vicinity of the Pripyat’ and Sozh rivers. The medieval period of Belarusian history dates most notably from the last quarter of the 10th century, when Prince Rogvold ruled the local principality of Polotsk (Polatsk). In the late 10th century Polotsk was annexed into Kievan Rus, the first significant East Slavic state. At least three principalities—Smolensk, Polotsk, and Turov-Pinsk—existed on what later became Belarusian territory. The
Tatar invasions that destroyed Kievan Rus and the city of Kiev (Kyiv) in 1240 left Belarusian territory relatively unscathed. In the 14th century Belarusian territory became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital at Vilnius. Slavs heavily outnumbered the titular nation and retained privileges, and state business was for a time conducted in the Belarusian language. By the 16th century a Slavic culture had begun to emerge, symbolized by the translation of the Bible into the Belarusian language by Frantsysk Skaryna in 1517. In 1569, however, the Grand Duchy formed a political union with Poland by the Union of Lublin, forming the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth) and making the sovereign of Poland also the grand duke of the Lithuanian kingdom. In this period, Belarusians faced pressure from the Poles to convert from Eastern Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. The union lasted until the late 18th century, by which time the lands of Belarus had fallen under the control of the Russian Empire as a result of the partitions of Poland that took place in 1772, 1793, and 1795.
Rule of the Russian Empire
The period of imperial Russian rule has been widely perceived as one of repression of cultural and political initiatives on Belarusian territory. In 1839 the Eastern Catholic (Uniate) Church in the Polotsk region was dissolved, and the Lithuanian statute of 1588 that codified civil rights was prohibited. In 1863 the young Belarusian Kastus Kalinovsky played a prominent role in the widespread Polish uprising against the Russian Empire; he was publicly executed after his capture by the imperial authorities in March 1864. Belarusian culture nevertheless made great strides in the 19th century, and during this period the concept of a Belarusian nation first truly emerged. The vast majority of ethnic Belarusians were villagers at the turn of the century. Although industrial development had progressed rapidly in the late 19th century, Belarus lagged behind most territories of the Russian Empire. The major Belarusian urban centers—such as Vilnius, Minsk, Homyel’, and Mahilyow—contained Jewish majorities, with Poles and Russians constituting the largest minorities. In 1905 the Russian Empire permitted Belarusians to publish newspapers and books in their native language, and national activities became more widespread. The most prominent publication was the newspaper Nasha Niva (Our Cornfield), which was the main Belarusian cultural publication in Vilnius until 1915.
The Soviet Period
The Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew the Russian monarchy in February (or March, in the Western, or Gregorian, calendar), and the Belarusian Socialist Hramada (Assembly) called for the reorganization of the Russian Empire as a federation. Later in the same month, all Belarusian political groups united to form the Belarusian National Committee, which was later renamed the Central Rada (Council). In the October (or November) phase of the revolution, the Bolsheviks (militant socialists) seized power in Russia. In Minsk, an All-Belarusian Congress took place in December to establish a democratic, multiparty government, but the Bolsheviks disbanded it by force of arms before it could complete its deliberations. In March 1918 most of Belarus came under German control by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was the result of the Bolsheviks’ negotiations with Germany to end Russia’s involvement in World War I (1914-1918). Belarusian nationalists took the opportunity to declare the creation of the Belarusian People’s (National) Republic, and Germany guaranteed the new state’s independence. The republic proved short-lived, however, because of Germany’s defeat in the war in November. Red Army invasions secured the Bolshevik regime on January 1, 1919, and the Belorussian (or Byelorussian) Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was proclaimed. In March 1921 the Treaty of Rīga, which formally ended a war between Russia and Poland, divided the eastern and western portions of Belorussia’s territory between the two countries. In December 1922 the Belorussian SSR, then only a fraction of its former size, became a constituent, founding republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the 1920s the
Belorussian republic incorporated most of the ethnic Belarusian territories that had been annexed into Russia. By the terms of a nonaggression treaty between the USSR and Germany, the Hrodna, Brest, and western part of Minsk provinces were annexed from Poland in September 1939, nearly doubling the size of Belorussia. Vilnius and its surrounding region were ceded to Lithuania. The Belorussian republic was permitted to develop culturally through the 1920s. Beginning in the late 1920s, however, the Soviet regime became increasingly oppressive under USSR dictator Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s, Stalin masterminded a massive, violent purge of the population—targeting especially intellectuals and political opponents— throughout the Soviet Union, carried out by the Soviet secret police. In the worst known incident in Belorussia, approximately 250,000 people were rounded up and executed in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk. In addition, countless thousands were exiled to labor camps in Siberia. During this period, national development ended in Belorussia, and Russian language and culture were promoted by the state.
World War II
In 1941, during World War II, the Nazi German army invaded Belorussia as part of a major offensive against the Soviet Union. The Nazis occupied the republic, imposing a brutal regime in which an estimated 2 million people perished. Jews, who at the time were the second-largest ethnic group in Belorussia, were especially targeted for imprisonment and mass executions in the Nazi death camps (see Holocaust). By the summer of 1942 the republic became the location of an extensive partisan movement, directed from Moscow, which played a major role in undermining the Nazi regime. In 1944 the Soviet Red Army drove out Nazi forces. In the postwar years, Belorussia developed into one of the Soviet Union’s most modern manufacturing regions. The republic became the major Soviet center for the production of tractors and automobiles and an important base for chemicals and other products. Concurrently, the postwar years were marked by rapid urbanization. Minsk developed as the major center of economic, cultural, and political life and the largest urban center with a quarter of the republic’s urban residents. Communist Party loyalists dominated the leadership from the mid-1950s through 1980, with first Kiryl Mazurov and then the popular Petr Masherov leading the Soviet republic through a period of relative prosperity. Underlying this evident progress was a rigorous Soviet policy of promoting the Russian language and culture, resulting in a thorough Russification of the non-Russian population.
The Collapse of Soviet Rule
In 1986 Belorussia was devastated by the explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power station in Ukraine. More than onefifth of the republic was contaminated with high-level radioactive fallout, and many of its residents were exposed. Also during the 1980s, USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his political and economic reforms, perestroika (Russian for “restructuring”) and glasnost (“openness”), which encouraged a cultural rebirth in Belorussia. In October 1988 the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) was formed, dedicated to the revival of the Belarusian language and to catalyzing the slow progress of de-Stalinization, or the reversal of repressive Stalinist policies, in the Belorussian SSR. In January 1990 Belarusian was made the sole official language of the republic. Later in 1990 relatively open elections were held to the Supreme Soviet, although the Communist Party won most seats and continued to dominate the legislature. In 1990 Belorussia was one of several republics to declare sovereignty from the central government of the USSR. Although a largely symbolic act, it took on new significance when Communist hardliners attempted a coup of the Soviet government in mid-August 1991. The coup attempt, which failed abjectly, precipitated the disintegration of the USSR. Following the lead of several other republics, Belarus declared its independence on August 25.
In the following month, the Supreme Soviet of Belorussia elected as its chairperson a respected former vice-chancellor of Belarus State University, Stanislau Shushkevich, and changed the name of the state to the Republic of Belarus. The former state flag of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic of 1918 was resurrected, along with a state insignia displaying a knight on horseback (the former symbol of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). In December a high-level meeting between Shushkevich, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk resulted in the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loosely structured alliance open to all Soviet republics, with Minsk as its headquarters. Most republics joined the CIS, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in late December.
Belarus Since Independence
In 1992 the BPF attempted to force new parliamentary elections by collecting signatures from the public, but the attempt was rejected by the Communist-dominated legislature. Hardline forces thereafter regained control of political life. Shushkevich, long opposed by his prime minister, Vyacheslau Kebich, was ousted on trumped-up corruption charges in January 1994. As the economy deteriorated, Communist leaders sought closer ties with Russia, demanding among other things a military-security union. The first presidential election took place in July 1994 and resulted in an unexpected defeat for Kebich. A virtually unknown young politician, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, swept to victory with more than 80 percent of the vote in the final runoff.
Power Struggles in Government
Lukashenka, a former state farm manager, immediately began to circumvent the constitution to assert his powers over the Supreme Soviet. In May 1995 he held national referenda that resulted in the removal of the state flag and emblem and their replacement by a flag nearly identical to that of the Belorussian SSR. Frequent demonstrations were held against the president’s policies. In April 1996 the largest of these protests, involving about 70,000 people, resulted in numerous arrests and police-inflicted injuries. The BPF leader, Zyenon Poznyak, was granted political asylum in the United States. In September the government shut down the only independent radio station and froze the bank accounts of at least five independent weekly newspapers. By late 1996 a power struggle had developed between Lukashenka and an intra-party majority in the Supreme Soviet. The president demanded a new referendum to extend his term in office and provide him with authority to dissolve the legislature, while the Supreme Soviet, led by chairman Semyon Sharetsky, sought to impeach the president. The referendum, which passed with more than 70 percent of the vote amid widespread allegations of vote fraud, resulted in a dramatic victory for Lukashenka. Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin played the role of intermediary and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the results of the referendum declared nonbinding. Lukashenka immediately signed its provisions into law as amendments to the constitution, despite an earlier ruling by the Constitutional Court that the results were to be used only for advisory purposes. Lukashenka dissolved the Supreme Soviet and created a new legislature, the National Assembly, composed entirely of his supporters. As president, Lukashenka combines genuine popularity, especially in rural regions, with a repressive regime that openly emulates the Soviet past.
Ties with Russia
In foreign affairs, Lukashenka pursued his long-held goal of unifying Belarus with Russia. In April 1996 Lukashenka and Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed a preliminary union treaty that proposed closer political and economic ties between the two countries. Earlier agreements already established their military cooperation and the stationing of Russian military units in Belarus. Lukashenka continued to push for full unification, but liberal Russian officials urged
Yeltsin to agree to only a limited integration, largely due to Belarus’s authoritarian government structure. In April 1997 the two leaders signed a union treaty that called for economic, political, and military cooperation but fell short of creating a single state. In December 1998 Yeltsin and Lukashenka signed an accord for the two countries to eventually merge their currencies, customs regulations, and tax collection systems.
Legislative elections in October 2000 were boycotted by the political opposition and reinstated a National Assembly mostly loyal to Lukashenka. In September 2001 Lukashenka was reelected president. However, the election was marred by arrests and harassment of political opponents, a strong bias against opposition candidates in state-run media, and widespread allegations of vote rigging. The 2004 legislative elections resulted in the complete exclusion of opposition parties from the National Assembly. International election observers said the election was seriously flawed due to widespread vote tampering in favor of pro-Lukashenka candidates, who won all the seats. In addition, a concurrent referendum on a constitutional amendment lifted the two-term limit on the presidency and gave Lukashenka the option to run for two additional terms. Presidential elections were held in March 2006. Lukashenka claimed victory with more than 86 percent of the vote. International observers and Western nations again denounced the election as seriously flawed. The controversy prompted mass public demonstrations, leading to at least 1,000 arrests. One of the two main opposition candidates was arrested for helping direct the demonstrations and speaking out against Lukashenka, who insisted that the elections were fair.
Contributed By: David R. Marples
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