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|Print version. Published on site Rusnet.NL 26 April 2004
The Republic of Belarus, country (estimated population 10,390,000), c.80,150 sq mi (207,600 sq km), in Eastern Europe.
Belarus borders on Poland in the west, on Lithuania and Latvia in the north, on Russia in the east, and on Ukraine in the south. Minsk is the capital and largest city.
Land and People
Much of Belarus is a hilly lowland, drained by the Dnepr, Western Dvina, and Neman rivers. The climate is moderate humid continental, with warm summers and cold winters. More than one third of the land is covered with peat and other swampy soils, notably in the Pripyat Marshes in the south.
In addition to the capital, other important cities are Gomel, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Bobruysk, Grodno and Brest.
About 80% of the population are Belarussians; Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Jews are the republic's largest minorities. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are the main religions. Both Belarussian and Russian are official languages, but Russian is more widely used.
Since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has moved slowly on privatisation and other market reforms, emphasising instead close economic relations with Russia.
About 80% of all industry remain in state hands, the banks, which had been privatised after independence, were renationalised under President Lukashenko.
Economic output, which declined for several years, revived somewhat in the late 1990s, but the economy remains dependent on Russian subsidies.
Peat, the country's most valuable mineral resource, is used for fuel and fertiliser and in the chemical industry. Belarus also has deposits of clay, sand, chalk, dolomite, phosphorite, and rock and potassium salt. Forests cover about a third of the land, and lumbering is an important occupation. Potatoes, flax, hemp, sugar beets, rye, oats, and wheat are the chief agricultural products. Dairy and beef cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised.
Belarus has only small reserves of petroleum and natural gas and imports most of its oil and gas from Russia. The main branches of industry produce tractors and trucks, earthmovers for use in construction and mining, metal-cutting machine tools, agricultural equipment, motorcycles, chemicals, fertiliser, textiles, and consumer goods. The chief trading partners are Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany.
The massive nuclear accident (April 26, 1986) at the Chernobyl power plant, across the border in Ukraine, had a devastating effect on Belarus; as a result of the radiation release, agriculture in a large part of the country was destroyed, and many villages were abandoned. Resettlement and medical costs were huge and long-term.
Belarus is governed under the constitution of 1994 as amended in 1996. It has a popularly elected president who serves a five-year term. The bicameral parliament consists of the 64-seat Council of the Republic and the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives. The president appoints the Prime Minister, who is the head of government. Administratively, the country is divided into six districts.
The region now constituting Belarus was colonised by East Slavic tribes from the 5th to the 8th centuries. In the 9th century it fell under the sway of Kiev Rus and in the 12th century was subdivided into several Belarussian principalities forming part of the Kiev State.
Kiev's destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century facilitated the conquest of Belarus by the dukes of Lithuania in the early 14th century. The region became part of the grand duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 was merged with Poland. The large Jewish population (later decimated by the Germans during World War II) settled in Belarus in the 14th century.
The region flourished under Lithuanian rule; but after the Polish-Lithuanian union Belarus lost its relative importance, and its ruling classes became thoroughly polonised.
Through the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, all Belarus passed to the Russian Empire. It suffered greatly during the wars between Poland and Russia and in the Napoleon invasion of 1812, during which it was laid waste by retreating Russian forces.
In March 1918, the Belarussian National Rada in Minsk proclaimed the region an independent republic; but in January, 1919, the Soviet government proclaimed a Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic at Smolensk, and soon the Red Army occupied all of Belarus.
In 1921, the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Soviet-Polish War, awarded Western Belarus to Poland. The eastern and larger part formed the Belarussian SSR, which joined the USSR in 1922.
In September 1939, the Soviet army overran Western Belarus and incorporated it into the Belarussian SSR. Occupied by the Germans during World War II, Belarus was one of the most devastated areas of the USSR. In 1945 its western border was adjusted slightly in favour of Poland, but the 1939 frontier remained essentially unchanged. The republic has had a separate seat in the United Nations since 1945.
The Republic of Belarus declared its independence from the USSR on August 25, 1991. The reform-minded Stanislav Shushkevich became head of state and, along with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus was one of the original signatories to the treaty establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States.
In early 1994 former Communists in the parliament voted to replace Shushkevich with Mechislav Grib, a former national police official; Alexander Lukashenko was elected to the post in July. Parliamentary elections were held during 1995, and most seats were filled by former Communists.
In 1996, Russia and Belarus signed an agreement to form a "union state" that, without completely merging the two governments, would strengthen economic, cultural, and political ties. Additional treaties signed in 1997, 1998, and 1999 included the development of common customs and taxation, a single currency, a joint defence policy, and other items designed to integrate the two nations.