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Background: After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration but, to date, neither side has actively sought to implement the accord.
Government type: republic
Capital: Minsk
Currency: Belarusian rubel (BR)

Geography of Belarus

Geographic coordinates: 53 00 N, 28 00 E
Map references: Commonwealth of Independent States
total: 207,600 sq. km
land: 207,600 sq. km
water: 0 sq. km
Land boundaries:
total: 3,098 km
border countries: Latvia 141 km, Lithuania 502 km, Poland 605 km, Russia 959 km, Ukraine 891 km
Coastline: 0 km (landlocked)
Climate: cold winters, cool and moist summers; transitional between continental and maritime
Terrain: generally flat and contains much marshland
Elevation extremes:
lowest point: Nyoman River 90 m
highest point: Dzyarzhynskaya Hara 346 m
Natural resources: forests, peat deposits, small quantities of oil and natural gas
Land use:
arable land: 29%
permanent crops: 1%
permanent pastures: 15%
forests and woodland: 34%
other: 21% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 1,000 sq. km (1993 est.)
Environment – current issues: soil pollution from pesticide use; southern part of the country contaminated with fallout from 1986 nuclear reactor accident at Chornobyl’ in northern Ukraine.
Environment – international agreements:
party to:  Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulphur 85, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands
signed, but not ratified:  Law of the Sea
Geography – note: landlocked; glacial scouring accounts for the flatness of Belarusian terrain and for its 11,000 lakes; the country is geologically well endowed with extensive deposits of granite, dolomitic limestone, marl, chalk, sand, gravel, and clay

Belarus, a generally flat country (the average elevation is 162 meters above sea level) without natural borders, occupies an area of 207,600 square kilometers, or slightly smaller than the state of Kansas. Its neighbors are Russia to the east and northeast, Latvia to the north, Lithuania to the northwest, Poland to the west, and Ukraine to the south.

Belarus’s mostly level terrain is broken up by the Belarusian Range (Byelaruskaya Hrada), a swath of elevated territory, composed of individual highlands, that runs diagonally through the country from west-southwest to east-northeast. Its highest point is the 346-meter Mount Dzyarzhynskaya (Dzerzhinskaya, in Russian), named for Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, head of Russia’s security apparatus under Stalin. Northern Belarus has a picturesque, hilly landscape with many lakes and gently sloping ridges created by glacial debris. In the south, about one-third of the republic’s territory around the Prypyats’ (Pripyat’, in Russian) River is taken up by the low-lying swampy plain of the Belarusian Woodland, or Palyessye (Poles’ye in Russian).

Belarus’s 3,000 streams and 4,000 lakes are major features of the landscape and are used for floating timber, shipping, and power generation. Major rivers are the west-flowing Zakhodnyaya Dzvina (Zapadnaya Dvina in Russian) and Nyoman (Neman in Russian) rivers, and the south-flowing Dnyapro (Dnepr in Russian) with its tributaries, Byarezina (Berezina in Russian), Sozh, and Prypyats’ rivers. The Prypyats’ River has served as a bridge between the Dnyapro flowing to Ukraine and the Vistula in Poland since the period of Kievan Rus’. Lake Narach (Naroch’, in Russian), the country’s largest lake, covers eighty square kilometers.

Nearly one-third of the country is covered with pushchy (sing., pushcha), large unpopulated tracts of forests. In the north, conifers predominate in forests that also include birch and alder; farther south, other deciduous trees grow. The Belavezhskaya (Belovezhskaya, in Russian) Pushcha in the far west is the oldest and most magnificent of the forests; a reservation here shelters animals and birds that became extinct elsewhere long ago. The reservation spills across the border into Poland; both countries jointly administer it.

Environmental Concerns

The most notorious legacy of pollution from the communist era is the April 26, 1986, accident at the Chornobyl’ nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Some 70 percent of the radiation spewed was carried by the wind to Belarus, where it affected at least 25 percent of the country–especially the Homyel’ (Gomel’ in Russian) and Mahilyow (Mogilėv in Russian) voblastsi (sing., voblasts’), or counties, in the south and southeast, and 22 percent of the population. Although more than 2 million people (including 600,000 children) lived in areas affected by fallout from the disaster, the Soviet government tried to cover up the accident until Swedish scientists pressed for an explanation of the unusually high levels of atmospheric radiation in Sweden.

The Belorussian government’s request to the Soviet government for a minimum of 17 billion rubles to deal with the consequences was answered with Moscow’s offer of only 3 billion rubles. According to one official in 1993, the per capita expenditure on the accident was one kopek in Russia, three kopeks in Ukraine, and one ruble (100 kopeks) in Belarus.

Despite the government’s establishment of the State Committee for Chornobyl’, the enactment of laws limiting who may stay in contaminated areas, and the institution of a national program for research on the effects, little progress was made in coping with the consequences of the disaster, owing to the lack of money and the government’s sluggish attitude. In 1994 a resettlement program for 170,000 residents was woefully underbudgeted and far behind schedule. To assist victims of Chornobyl’, a Western organization, the Know-How Fund, provided many Belarusian doctors with training in the latest bone-marrow techniques in Europe and the United States.

The long-range effects of the disaster include an increasing incidence of various kinds of cancer and birth defects; congenital defects in newborns are reported to be 40 percent higher than before the accident. Tainted water, livestock, farm produce, and land are widespread, and the extensive wetlands retain high concentrations of radiation. Cleanup of the disaster accounted for 14 percent of the state budget in 1995. Other environmental problems include widespread chemical pollution of the soil, which shows excessive pesticide levels, and the industrial pollution found in nearly all the large cities.

People of Belarus

Population: 10,300,483 (July 2005 est.)
Age structure:
0-14 years:  17.93% (male 947,820; female 908,210)
15-64 years:  68.21% (male 3,428,920; female 3,631,290)
65 years and over:  13.86% (male 473,992; female 959,962) 
Population growth rate: -0.15% 
Birth rate: 9.57 births/1,000 population 
Death rate: 13.97 deaths/1,000 population 
Net migration rate: 2.89 migrant(s)/1,000 population 
Infant mortality rate: 14.38 deaths/1,000 live births 
Life expectancy at birth:
total population:  68.14 years
male:  62.06 years
female:  74.52 years 
Total fertility rate: 1.28 children born/woman 
noun: Belarusian(s)
adjective: Belarusian
Ethnic groups: Byelorussian 81.2%, Russian 11.4%, Polish, Ukrainian, and other 7.4%
Religions: Eastern Orthodox 80%, other (including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim) 20% (1997 est.)
Languages: Byelorussian, Russian, other
definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 98%
male: 99%
female: 97% (1989 est.)

History of Belarus

LOCATED ON THE WESTERN BORDERLANDS of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, the regions that would one day become the republics of Belarus and Moldova had long been part of a buffer zone used to protect Russia from Western influences and military forces. The imperial and Soviet governments attempted to fully integrate the two regions’ economies into their own and to Russify their people in order to bind them seamlessly into the their respective empires. For a long time, these efforts seemed to work, but in 1991 Belarus and Moldova declared their independence from the Soviet Union and began to go their separate, post-Soviet ways. Independence was not a totally new experience for the two countries, however, each of which had existed briefly as a sovereign entity during the previous hundred years, but this time they had much to undo from the previous regime.

The two countries, former republics of the now-defunct Soviet Union, are a study in contrasts. Belarus, mostly ethnic Belarusian (and overwhelmingly Slavic) in population, had long been part of the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union. The tsars, and later the commissars, sought to meld Belorussia with Russia and the Belorussians with the Russians. They succeeded to a remarkable extent: independent Belarus still identifies closely with Russia, and Belarusian nationalists are in the minority. Soviet-era political and economic structures, and even symbols, have been retained and even reintroduced, as was the case after the May 1995 referendum that brought back the Soviet-era flag and emblem (both slightly modified) and the Russian language.

Moldova, a country that had also been part of both empires since the 19th century, has a majority population of ethnic Romanians, who are not Slavs. Despite Russian and Soviet efforts to Slavicize them, most ethnic Romanians were able to maintain their identity and looked to Romania as the source of their culture. When the Soviet Union began to crumble, Moldova asserted first its sovereignty and then its independence, although the population was far from unanimous on either. But the nationalists eventually carried the day, and Moldova sought to distance itself from Russia, despite the wishes of the Transnistrians, who in 1990 proclaimed the “Dnestr Moldavian Republic,” with a pro-Soviet extralegal government, on the east bank of the Nistru River. The Transnistrians want no part of independent Moldova, its ethnic- Romanian nationalists, or a possible reunification with Romania, where they would be a small minority instead of a powerful political force.

In both Belarus and Moldova, there are many who wish to return to the days of the Soviet Union for a variety of reasons, some economic, some nostalgic, and some fearful. In Belarus these conservatives (ethnic Belarusians as well as ethnic Russians) are in the majority and are to be found throughout the population and the government. Their domination is felt not only in the political arena but in the social sphere as well.

In Moldova the conservatives (mainly, but not exclusively, ethnic Slavs) are located throughout society and the government, but their influence is not as overwhelming as in Belarus. Many of the Moldovan conservatives (although not all) live in Transnistria. Here, they believe, they are the keepers of the Soviet ideal from which a reconstituted Soviet Union will one day rise up again. However, time and the course of events have made it clear that they are trying to protect not a way of life but rather their own political and–especially–economic interests, which are often illegal (including sales of arms and illegal drugs).

Both Belarus and Moldova have stated their wish to have free market economies, but they have proceeded in this direction at different paces. The economies of both countries had been firmly embedded in the Soviet economy, and each had specialized in a certain sector–Belarus in heavy agricultural equipment and goods for the military, and Moldova primarily in agricultural products and consumer goods–while relying on other republics for raw materials. Both republics had been especially dependent on Russia for inexpensive fuels, a fact that continued to haunt them after independence. Subsidized fuel, priced well below world prices, had made the goods produced by the two countries inexpensive and affordable by the other Soviet republics. With the loss of these cheap fuels, both countries were forced to either decrease their fuel consumption (and their output) or improve the efficiency of their industries. Belarus chose the former path, which coincided with the fact that it was selling fewer of its goods because of price and quality considerations, while Moldova tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to take steps toward improved efficiency.

Both countries initiated privatization, or the sale of state- owned property, and both were having a difficult time reconfiguring their economies. The Moldovan government was changing its laws to make them more compatible with a free market and more friendly toward foreign investment and business in general. However, vested interests sought to maintain the system or, at least, to make large profits during the transition.

The Belarusian government decided that, despite its intention to sell state-owned property, it would leave the agricultural sector under state control. The government’s reasoning was that Belarusian large-scale agriculture was best suited to the heavy agricultural equipment that the country continued to produce, despite the fact that fuel for this equipment was often scarce.

Both Belarus and Moldova stated their intention of having democratic political systems, as did many former Soviet republics. However, making the change from a communist government to a real democracy proved difficult, not the least because of officials who wished to maintain the status quo. They viewed democracy as too chaotic and unstable, unlike the predictability that had characterized their previous political lives. They also saw it as risky and feared to lose the perquisites to which they had been entitled and which they wanted to retain.

Belarus’s attempts to become a western democracy often appeared likely to remain out of reach. Although the constitution added the office of the president and declared a separation of powers, government in Belarus often seemed no different from that of the Soviet era. Political apathy among the population remained so strong that a legislature could not be seated after two rounds of elections in 1995; corruption was still widespread despite the fact that the president had campaigned as an anticorruption candidate; and political leaders looked to Moscow for political, military, and financial support, with the president trying to lead the country back into some sort of union with Russia.

Moldova kept its basic Soviet-era governmental structure, while adding a presidency, universal suffrage, and popular elections, as did Belarus. However, the country’s first attempt at a democratically elected parliament showed the need for further modification of the system. The unwieldy size of the body and a hardline nationalist majority made legislative compromises among the various ethnic groups in Moldova impossible, and the result was gridlock. A smaller parliament and a larger number of moderates after the 1994 elections have made legislative progress possible despite the disagreements and factions that are still to be found.

Despite the differences between the two countries, the focal point for those who wish to maintain each country’s independence is the same–the national language, the same rallying point as in the revolutions of 1848, a series of republican revolts against Western and Central European monarchies. These revolts all failed in their immediate goals, but they eventually led to greater representation of ethnic groups in legislatures and to greater cultural autonomy, including the use of languages that, until then, had been dismissed by the authorities as peasant vernaculars. However, while nationalists in the last century sought to codify (and sometimes even form) a literary language, the task of the nationalists in 1991 was to revive that language and divest it of its Russian and Soviet accretions.

To those who have never undergone forced cultural assimilation, the issue may seem trivial. What difference does it make what language is spoken or what it is called? To those who have had their use of language restricted, however, the matter goes beyond mere defiance. Language is the medium of the culture on which their daily lives and identities are based. To define what language can be spoken is to define the identity of not only the individual but also of the country.

Moldovans kept Russian as a language of interethnic communication but subsequently entered a debate as to what their own language was to be called: was it Moldovan or Romanian? The president explained that the term “Moldovan” was used in the constitution for political reasons–to assuage the fears of those who feared imminent reunification with Romania (despite the fact that Germany and Austria, for example, which both use the German language, are separate countries). Again, politics, language, and emotions were thoroughly entangled.

Belarusians, the majority of whom prefer to use Russian in their daily lives, have dealt with the language issue differently. They returned Russian to its status of official language, alongside the Belarusian language, through their response to a May 1995 referendum question. Thus the Belarusian language policy reflected Belarus’s pro-Russian policies in general.

Belarus Economy

Economy – overview: Belarus has seen little structural reform since 1995, when President LUKASHENKO launched the country on the path of “market socialism.” In keeping with this policy, LUKASHENKO re-imposed administrative controls over prices and currency exchange rates and expanded the state’s right to intervene in the management of private enterprise. In addition to the burdens imposed by extremely high inflation, businesses have been subject to pressure on the part of central and local governments, e.g., arbitrary changes in regulations, numerous rigorous inspections, and retroactive application of new business regulations prohibiting practices that had been legal. Further economic problems are two consecutive bad harvests, 1998-99, and persistent trade deficits. Close relations with Russia, possibly leading to reunion, color the pattern of economic developments. For the time being, Belarus remains self-isolated from the West and its open-market economies.
GDP: purchasing power parity – $78.8 billion (2000 est.)
GDP – real growth rate: 4% (2000 est.)
GDP – per capita: purchasing power parity – $7,500 (2000 est.)
GDP – composition by sector:
agriculture: 23%
industry: 28%
services: 49% (1998 est.)
Population below poverty line: 22% (1995 est.)
Household income or consumption by percentage share:
lowest 10%: 4.9%
highest 10%: 19.4% (1993)
Inflation rate (consumer prices): 200% (2000 est.)
Labor force: 4.8 million (2000)
Unemployment rate: 2.1% officially registered unemployed (December 2000); large number of underemployed workers
revenues: $4 billion
expenditures: $4.1 billion, including capital expenditures of $180 million (1997 est.)
Industries: metal-cutting machine tools, tractors, trucks, earth movers, motorcycles, TV sets, chemical fibers, fertilizer, textiles, radios, refrigerators
Industrial production growth rate:5% (2000 est.)
Electricity – production: 24.911 billion kWh (1999)
Electricity – production by source:
fossil fuel:  99.9%
hydro:  0.1%
nuclear:  0%
other:  0% (1999)
Electricity – consumption: 27.647 billion kWh (1999)
Electricity – exports: 2.62 billion kWh (1999)
Electricity – imports: 7.1 billion kWh (1999)
Agriculture – products: grain, potatoes, vegetables, sugar beets, flax; beef, milk
Exports: $7.4 billion (f.o.b., 2000)
Exports – commodities: machinery and equipment, chemicals, metals, textiles, foodstuffs
Exports – partners: Russia 66%, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Lithuania (1998)
Imports: $8.3 billion (f.o.b., 2000)
Imports – commodities: mineral products, machinery and equipment, metals, chemicals, foodstuffs
Imports – partners: Russia 54%, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Lithuania (1998)
Debt – external: $1 billion (2000 est.)
Economic aid – recipient: $194.3 million (1995)
Currency: Belarusian rubel (BR)

Map of Belarus