Belarus -- Geography --
Official Name: Republic of Belarus
Capital City : Minsk
Official Currency: Belarussian Rouble
Religions: Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish
Population: 9 724 723 (2007 est.). The majority of the population of Belarus are native Belarusians, who comprise 81.2% of the total population. Russians are the second largest group making up 11.4% of the population. The Poles and Ukrainians account for 3.9 and 2.4% of the population, respectively.
Land Area: 207 600 sq km
Landforms: Belarus is a very flat, low-lying country including the Poltsk Lowland (north) and the Dnieper Lowland (south). It has many winding rivers, small lakes,
marshes and swamps.
Land Divisions: 6 voblasts and 1 municipality*, including: Brestskaya (Brest), Homyelskaya (Homyel), Horad Minsk*, Hrodzyenskaya (Hrodna), Mahilyowskaya (Mahilyow), Minskaya and Vitsyebskaya (Vitsyebsk).
Belarus -- History --
The area of modern-day Belarus was first settled by early East Slavs in the 6th century. They gradually came into contact with the Varangians, a band of warriors consisting of Scandinavians and Slavs from the Baltics. Though defeated and briefly exiled by the local population, the Varangians were later asked to return and helped to form a polity—commonly referred to as the Kievan Rus'—in exchange for tribute. The start of the Kievan Rus' state began approximately in 862 at the present-day city of Novgorod.
Upon the death of Kievan Rus' ruler Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the state broke apart and became independent principalities, including Polatsk. These Ruthenian principalities were badly affected by a Mongol invasion in the 13th century and many were later incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Of all the principalities held by the Duchy, nine were settled by ancestors of the Belarusian people.
On February 2, 1386, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were joined together in a personal union through a marriage of their rulers. This union set in motion the developments that eventually resulted in the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created in 1569. During this time, the Duchy was involved with battles between different forces. One of the major battles was at the side of Poland against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The joint victory allowed the Duchy to control the northwestern border lands of Eastern Europe. By the 15th century, the Grand Duchy stretched across much of Eastern Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
The Russians, led by Tsar Ivan the III, began military conquests in 1486 in an attempt to gain the Kievan Rus' lands, specifically Belarus and Ukraine. The union between Poland and Lithuania ended in 1795, with the commonwealth partitioned between Imperial Russia, Prussia, and Austria, dividing Belarus. Belarusian territories were acquired by the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine II and held them until their occupation by Germany during World War I.
During the negotiations of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Belarus first declared independence on 25 March 1918, forming the Belarusian People's Republic. The Germans supported the BNR, which lasted for about 10 months. Soon after the Germans were defeated, the BPR fell under the influence of Russia and became the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) in 1919. After Russian occupation of eastern and northern Lithuania, it was merged into the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Byelorussian lands were then split between Poland and the Soviets after the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921, and the recreated Byelorussian SSR became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.
In September 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and annexed its eastern lands, including the majority of Polish-held Byelorussian land. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Byelorussia was hardest hit in the war and remained in Nazi hands until 1944. During that time, 209 out of 290 cities in the republic were destroyed, the Nazis destroyed or removed to Germany 85% of the republic industry, over one million buildings were destroyed and the human losses are estimated between two and three million, (approximately a quarter to one-third of their total population). These huge losses were due to Byelorussia's direct path between Berlin and Moscow and to purges ordered by Stalin that caused 300,000 Belarusians to either disappear or perish. The Jewish population of Byelorussia was devastated during The Holocaust and never recovered after the war. The population of Belarus did not regain its pre-war level until 1971. After the war ended, Byelorussia was among the fifty-one founding signatories of the United Nations Charter in 1945 and began to rebuilding the Soviet Republic. During this time, the Byelorussian SSR became a major center of manufacturing in the western region of the USSR, increasing jobs and bringing an influx of ethnic Russians into the republic.
Joseph Stalin implemented a policy of Sovietization to isolate the Byelorussian SSR from Western influences. This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government. The official use of the Belarusian language and other cultural aspects were limited by Moscow. After Stalin died in 1953, successor Nikita Khrushchev continued this program, stating, "The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism." When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began pushing through his reform plan, the Belarusian people delivered a petition to him in December 1986 explaining the loss of their culture. Earlier that year, Byelorussian SSR was exposed to nuclear fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in neighboring Ukrainian SSR. In June 1988, mass graves were discovered at the city of Kurapaty which contained about 250,000 bodies from the Stalin era. Some contend that this discovery was proof that the Soviet government was trying to erase the Belarusian people, and caused some to seek independence.
Two years later, in March 1990, elections for seats in the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR took place. While the pro-independence Belarusian Popular Front took only 10 percent of the seats, the populace was content with the selection of the delegates. Belarus declared itself sovereign on July 27, 1990 by the issuance of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the support of the Communist Party, the country's name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on August 25, 1991. Stanislav Shushkevich, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine on December 8, 1991 in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In March 1994, a national constitution was adopted, which replaced the office of prime minister with that of a president. Elections for the presidency resulted in the politically unknown Alexander Lukashenko winning over 80% of the vote. Lukashenko continues to hold the office of president, being reelected in 2001 and in 2006.
As of 2005, there appears to be a movement in Belarus towards reuniting with Russia. In November 2005, a draft constitution was sent to both Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko for approval.This move, along with others, is part of the 1996 plan created by Lukashenko and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to create a union between the two nations.
Belarus -- Economy --
The Belarusian economy remains mostly state-controlled, as in Soviet times. Over half of the companies are state controlled with foreign ownership under 4%. The country is relatively stable economically, but depends to a large extent on import resources, like oil from Russia. Agriculture is dominated by collective farming, with major sub-sectors being the cultivation of potatoes and cattle byproducts, such as meat. The biggest export of Belarus is machinery, such as tractors and defense equipment.
Historically important branches of industry include textiles and wood processing. After 1965, the development of heavy industry and mechanical engineering (tractors, refrigerators, etc.) significantly strengthened the country's development. Within the Soviet Union, Belarus was one of the most industrially-developed republics and was the most developed CIS state during the fall of the Soviet Union. Economically, Belarus involved itself in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Economic Community, and Union with Russia. Soon after 1990, industrial production plunged due to decreased demand of Belarusian goods from traditional partners, lost investments and less production of military equipment. Gross domestic product (GDP) for 2006 was US$83.1 billion in PPP dollars (estimate), or about $8,100 per capita. In 2005, the gross domestic product increased by about 9.9%, with the inflation rate averaging about 9.5%.
GDP (purchasing power parity): $83.1 billion
GDP - real growth rate: 9.9%
GDP - per capita (PPP): $8,100
GDP - composition by sector:
Inflation rate (consumer prices): 7%
Agriculture - products: grain, potatoes, vegetables, sugar beets, flax; beef, milk
Industries: metal-cutting machine tools, tractors, trucks, earthmovers, motorcycles, televisions, chemical fibers, fertilizer, textiles, radios, refrigerators
Industrial production growth rate: 15.6% (2005.)
Current account balance: -$1.512 billion
Exports: $19.84 billion
Exports - commodities: machinery and equipment, mineral products, chemicals, metals, textiles, foodstuffs
Exports - partners: Russia 34.7%, Netherlands 17.7%, UK 7.5%, Ukraine 6.3%, Poland 5.2%
Imports: $22.24 billion
Imports - commodities: mineral products, machinery and equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs, metals
Imports - partners: Russia 58.6%, Germany 7.5%, Ukraine 5.5%
Labor force: 4.3 million (31 December 2005)
Unemployment rate: 1.6% officially registered unemployed; large number of underemployed workers (2005)
Belarusian ruble (BYB/BYR)
Belarusian rubles per US dollar - 2,144.6 (2006), 2,150 (2005), 2,160.26 (2004), 2,051.27 (2003), 1,790.92 (2002)
Belarus -- Culture --
Traditional Belarusian dress originates from the time of Kievan Rus and over time was under the influence of cultures of neighbors: Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, and other European nations. Aside from its predominantly Ruthenian roots, Belarusian cuisine is very close to Lithuanian. It is sometimes considered as somewhat less rich and impressive than those of its imposing neighbors. In fact, however, this may result from the general lack of national identity which still continues to hold back the development of a nation and also led to the loss of many culinary traditions in the last 100 years.
Certain aspects of the Belarusian culture have been lost over time because of the Russification period. President Lukashenko has introduced laws that force radio and television stations to showcase a percentage of Belarusian talent daily, but it does not specify whether the performance has to be in the Belarusian or Russian language. The said radio and television stations are state-owned, mostly controlled by the National State Teleradiocompany (TVR).
The Belarusian government sponsors many annual cultural festivals: "Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk"; "Minsk Spring"; "Slavonic Theatrical Meetings"; International Jazz Festival; National Harvesting Festival; "Arts for Children and Youth"; the Competition of Youth Variety Show Arts; "Muses of Niesvizh"; "Mir Castle"; and the National Festival of the Belarusian Song and Poetry. These events showcase talented Belarusian performers, whether it is in music, art, poetry, dance or theater. At these festivals, various prizes named after Soviet and Belarusian heroes are awarded for excellence in music or art. Several state holidays, like Independence Day or Victory Day draw big crowds and include various displays such as fireworks and military parades. Most of the festivals take place in Vitebsk or Minsk.
Belarus has four World Heritage Sites, two of them shared between Belarus and its neighbors. The four are: the Mir Castle Complex; the Niasvizh Castle; the Belovezhskaya Pushcha (shared with Poland); and the Struve Geodetic Arc (shared with Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Moldova, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine).
Belarus -- Political system, law and government --
Belarus is a republic, governed by a President and a bicameral parliament—the National Assembly—comprising a lower house, the 110 member House of Representatives, and an upper house, the 64 member Council of the Republic. The House of Representatives has the power to appoint the Prime Minister of Belarus, make constitutional amendments, call for a vote of confidence on the prime minister and make suggestions on the foreign and domestic policy of Belarus. The Council of the Republic has the power to select various government officials, conduct an impeachment trial of the president and the ability to accept or reject the bills passed from the House of Representatives. Each chamber has the ability to veto any law passed by local officials if it is contrary to the Constitution of Belarus. The President—since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko—is the head of state. The government is a Council of Ministers, headed by a prime minister; the members of the Council of Ministers need not be members of the legislature, and are appointed by the President. The judiciary comprises the Supreme Court and various specialized courts, such as the Constitutional Court, which deal with specific issued related to the constitution or business law. The judges of the Constitutional Court are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Council of the Republic.
In Belarus, while there are political parties that either support or oppose President Lukashenko, the majority of the seats in the National Assembly are filled by those not affiliated with any political parties ("non-partisans"). However, there are three political parties who hold seats in the House of Representatives: the Communist Party of Belarus (8 seats), the Agrarian Party of Belarus (3 seats), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (1 seat). The other two parties that pledged their support to Lukashenko, the Belarusian Socialist Sporting Party and the Republican Party of Labour and Justice, did not secure any seats in October 2004 election. Opposition parties, such as the Belarusian People's Front and the United Civic Party of Belarus did not gain any seats. The UCPB and the BPF are some of the parties that comprise the People's Coalition 5 Plus, a group of political parties who oppose Lukashenko. Several organizations, including as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, declared the election un-free due to opposition parties negative results and the bias of the Belarusian media in favor of the government. However, in constitutional as well as political terms, the House is of marginal importance. At the 2000 election, it took four rounds of voting before all the seats were filled; in the end, 86% of the elected deputies were independents, and the remainder were the representatives of parties traditionally loyal to the president (OSCE, 2000). The next round of elections took place on March 19th, 2006, and this election also included selecting the President. Lukashenko was opposed in the election by Alexander Milinkevich, a candidate representing a coalition of oppositional parties. Another opposition candidate, Alaksandar Kazulin of the Social Democrats was detained and beaten by police during protests surrounding the Lukashenko sponsored event, the All Belarusian People's Assembly. This event, among others, have caused for concern that the 2006 elections had irregularities.The President won a landslide victory, over 80% of the vote. It was however deemed unfair by the OSCE. (See Belarusian presidential election, 2006).
Lukashenko was quoted as saying that he has an "authoritarian ruling style" that he uses to run the country. The Council of Europe has barred Belarus from membership since 1997 for undemocratic voting irregularities in the November 1996 constitutional referendum and parliament by-elections. According to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, Belarus's constitution is "illegal and does not respect minimum democratic standards and thus violates the principles of separation of powers and the rule of law". The Belarusian government is also criticized for human rights violations and its actions against NGOs, independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians. During the rule of the current administration in Belarus, there have been several cases of persecution, including the disappearance or death of prominent opposition leaders and independent journalists. Belarus is also one of just two nations in Europe that retains the death penalty for certain crimes. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus, among seven nations, as part of the US's list of outposts of tyranny. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced that the statement from Secretary Rice "are a poor basis" to form a good Belarusian-American alliance.