|Flag||Coat of Arms|
|Language||[[Belarusian, Russian]] (official)|
|Prime minister||Mikhail Myasnikovich|
|Area||80,100 sq mi|
|GDP 2013||$150.4 billion|
|GDP per capita||$16,100|
While archeological evidence points to settlement in today's Belarus at least 10,000 years ago, recorded history begins with settlement by Baltic and Slavic tribes in the early centuries A.D. With distinctive features by the ninth century, the emerging Belarusian state was then absorbed by Kievan Rus' in the ninth century. Belarus was later an integral part of what was called Litva, which included today's Belarus as well as today's Lithuania. Belarus was the birthplace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Belarusian was the state language of the Grand Duchy until 1697, in part owing to the strong flowering of Belarusian culture during the Renaissance through the works of leading Belarusian humanists such as Frantzisk Skaryna. Belarus was the site of the Union of Brest in 1597, which created the Greek Catholic Church, for long the majority church in Belarus until suppressed by the Russian empire, and the birthplace of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who played a key role in the American Revolution. Occupied by the Russian empire from the end of the 18th century until 1918, Belarus declared its short-lived National Republic on March 25, 1918, only to be forcibly absorbed by the Bolsheviks into what became the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.). Suffering devastating population losses under Soviet leader Josif Stalin and the German Nazi occupation, including mass executions of 800,000 Jews, Belarus was retaken by the Soviets in 1944.
After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus declared its sovereignty on July 27, 1990, and independence from the Soviet Union on August 25, 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than have 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. Although Belarus agreed to a framework to carry out the accord, serious implementation has yet to take place. Since his election in July 1994 as the country's first directly elected president, Alexander Lukashenko has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means and a centralized economic system. Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion remain in place. Lukashenko has made Russian the second official language of the nation in addition to the Belarusian language.
Belarus is a land-locked country, sharing a common border with the Baltic States of Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. The country is generally low-lying, with marshes and thick wooded areas. The Dnieper, Prypyats, and Nyoman rivers are its major waterways.
- Area: 207,600 sq. km. (80,100 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Kansas.
- Cities: Capital--Minsk.
- Terrain: Landlocked, low-lying with thick forests, flat marshes and fields.
- Climate: Cold winters, cool and moist summers, transitional between continental and maritime.
- Population (July 2009 est.): 9,648,533 (urban 73%; rural 27%).
- Population decline (2009 est.): -0.378%.
- Ethnic groups (1999 census): Belarusian (81.2%), Russian (11.4%), Polish (3.9%), Ukrainian (2.4%), Jewish (0.3%), other (0.8%).
- Religions (2004 est.): Eastern Orthodox 80%, Catholic 14%, Protestant 2%, other (including Autocephalous Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Krishna) 4%.
- Languages: Belarusian and Russian (official).
- Education: Literacy--99.6%.
- Health: Infant mortality rate (2009 est.)--6.43/1,000. Life expectancy (2009 est.)--70.63 years (men 64.95 years, women 76.67 years).
- Work force (4.3 million as of December 31, 2005): Industry—34.7%; agriculture and forestry--14%; construction--7.9%; transportation, communications--7.6%; trade, catering--12.2%; education--10.7%; other--24.3%.
The constitution provides for a directly elected president who serves a 5-year term. The bicameral parliament consists of the 64-seat Council of the Republic and the 110-seat House of Representatives. The Council of the Republic is the house of territorial representation. Eight members of the Council are appointed directly by the president of the Republic of Belarus, while local regional councils elect the rest. The deputies to the House of Representatives are elected directly by the voters. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government.
Since his election in July 1994 as the country's first President, Alyaksander Lukashenka has consolidated power steadily in the executive branch through authoritarian means and has dominated all branches of government. He used a non-democratic referendum in November 1996 to amend the 1994 constitution to broaden his powers and illegally extend his term in office. He began to count his 5-year term in 1996, thereby adding 2 years to his first term in office. Based on the unrecognized 1996 constitution, Lukashenka announced that presidential elections were to be held in 2001. In 2004, he engineered a fraudulent referendum that removed term limits on the presidency. Independent exit polling of the referendum showed results far different from those officially announced. In 2006, Lukashenka "won" another term in an undemocratic election. In January 2007, he further consolidated his rule through local elections that failed to meet international standards.
In October 2000, parliamentary elections occurred for the first time since the disputed referendum of 1996. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), these elections failed to meet international democratic standards. International monitors noted sweeping human rights violations and undemocratic practices throughout the election period, including massive vote-counting fraud. These irregularities led the OSCE/ODIHR to find that these elections failed to meet Belarus' OSCE commitments for democratic elections. March 2003 local elections and October 2004 parliamentary elections also failed to meet international standards of freedom and fairness. OSCE/ODIHR observers declared that the parliamentary elections fell far short of international standards, citing abuses in the campaign period and the vote counting.
The March 19, 2006 presidential election marked another low point in the government's treatment of its own citizens. OSCE/ODIHR observers noted that the election failed to meet international standards, was characterized by a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association, and expression, and included a highly problematic vote count. Authorities detained many opposition and civic activists during the campaign and used force against demonstrators protesting the fraudulent election. Opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin was beaten and arrested during post-election protests. He was sentenced to a 5-year jail term. The Belarusian authorities released Kazulin on August 16, 2008.
Belarus held parliamentary elections in late September 2008. Despite Belarusian authorities’ public assurances that the elections would be “unprecedentedly” democratic and transparent, the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission determined the elections fell short of OSCE standards. The authorities denied registration for approximately 20% of opposition candidates as well as candidates overall. While candidates were allotted their mandatory campaign airtime on various media outlets, restrictions on this access made it difficult for candidates to adequately present their platforms to the public. OSCE/ODIHR observers noted good access to polling stations during early voting and election day. However, the Belarusian authorities fell short on access for OSCE/ODIHR and other observers to the vote count, a crucial aspect for determining the transparency of the elections. OSCE/ODIHR observers assessed transparency of the vote count to have been bad or very bad in 48% of observed cases. The OSCE recognized minor improvements in the conduct of the elections, but the lack of a transparent vote count made it impossible to determine the validity of the elections. The Department of State issued a statement following OSCE/ODIHR’s preliminary assessment, expressing disappointment with the failure of the Belarusian elections to meet international standards.
Principal Government Officials
- President--Alexander Lukashenko
- Prime Minister--Mikhail Myasnikovich
- Foreign Minister--Uladzimir Makei
- Ambassador to the U.S.--Mikhail Khvostov
- Ambassador to the UN--Andrey Dapkiunis
Under an arrangement with the former U.S.S.R., Belarus was an original member of the United Nations. It also is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS - a group of 12 former Soviet republics) and its customs union, the Belarusian and Russian Union State, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) Partnership for Peace, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, the Non-Aligned Movement, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.
Following the recognition of Belarus as an independent state in December 1991 by the European Community, EU-Belarus relations initially experienced a steady progression. The signature of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1995 signaled a commitment to political, economic, and trade cooperation. Significant assistance was provided to Belarus within the framework of the TACIS technical assistance program and also through various aid programs and loans. However, progress in EU-Belarus relations stalled in 1996 after serious setbacks in the development of democracy. The EU did not recognize the 1996 constitution that replaced the 1994 constitution. Neither the PCA nor its trade-related elements were implemented, and Belarus was not invited to join the EU's Neighborhood Policy. Belarusian membership in the Council of Europe was not supported, bilateral relations at the ministerial level were suspended, and EU technical assistance programs were frozen. In 1998, relations were further worsened when President Lukashenka evicted several western ambassadors from their homes in the Drozdy area of Minsk. In 2004, the Council of Europe adopted a report written by special rapporteur Christos Pourgourides calling on Belarusian authorities to suspend various high-level officials after conducting a thorough investigation of the cases of several prominent Belarusian political figures who have disappeared and remain unaccounted for. In line with the U.S., the EU spoke strongly against the government's conduct of the 2006 election, noting that additional restrictive measures would be imposed against those officials responsible for abuses. After the election, the U.S. and EU imposed travel restrictions and financial sanctions against those responsible for abuses. The EU also launched a two-year, two million Euro project to support Belarusian access to independent information, which complements U.S. assistance programs. In June 2007, the EU announced the withdrawal of GSP trade preferences for Belarus, following an assessment by the International Labor Organization that Belarus had not acted to ensure the protection of labor rights and freedom of association. After the September 2008 parliamentary elections, the EU issued a statement expressing its concern about the conduct of the elections, which despite some progress did not correspond to the OSCE’s democratic standards. In October 2008, the EU suspended its visa sanctions for six months on numerous Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenka, in response to Belarus’ release of political prisoners in August; this suspension has been extended until December 2009. In May 2009, the EU invited Belarus to take part in the Eastern Partnership Initiative.
Acknowledging the lack of progress in relation to bilateral relations and the internal situation following the position adopted in 1997, the EU adopted a benchmark approach in 1999, whereby relations would be gradually improved upon fulfillment of the four benchmarks set by the OSCE. In 2000, some moderately positive developments toward the implementation of recommendations made by the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) were observed, but were not sufficient in the realm of access to fair and free elections. The Belarusian authorities, objecting to the OSCE AMG's activities, forced it to shutdown by failing to renew visas or extend accreditation of its professional staff. The Belarusian authorities agreed to a successor OSCE presence after 14 EU member countries and the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on the travel of high-ranking Belarusian officials. The OSCE Office in Minsk formally came into existence on January 1, 2003 with a mandate to "assist the Belarusian authorities in further promoting institution-building, in further consolidating the Rule of Law and in developing relations with civil society, in accordance with OSCE principles and commitments."
Russia is the largest partner for Belarus in the economic and political fields. In terms of trade, over one-third of Belarusian exports go to Russia. Due to the structure of Belarusian industry, Belarus relies heavily on other CIS countries, and Russia in particular, both for export markets and for the supply of raw materials, subsidized energy, and components. The steep increase in the price of natural gas in 2007, as well as higher tariffs on Russian-sourced oil and oil products, has contributed to a crisis in the Belarusian economy, forcing the regime to cut popular subsidies and to borrow from outside sources to finance the budget. Belarus received a $1.5 billion stabilization loan in late 2007 and a $2 billion loan in late 2008 from Russia.
The framework for the Russia-Belarusian Union was set out in the Treaty on the Formation of a Community of Russia and Belarus (1996), the Treaty on Russia-Belarus Union, the Union Charter (1997), and the Treaty of the Formation of a Union State (1999). The integration treaties contain commitments to monetary union, equal rights, single citizenship, and a common foreign and defense policy. They also have established a range of institutions modeled after the EU. After protracted disputes and setbacks, the two countries' customs duties were unified as of March 2001. Belarus has made progress in monetary stabilization in the context of ongoing negotiation with the Russian Central Bank on monetary union. However, Belarus has repeatedly pushed back the date for implementing a monetary union. A dispute with Russia in late 2006 and early 2007 over gas prices and oil import duties raised further doubts about the future of the union, and many of the provisions of the union have yet to be implemented. Most recently, talks in October 2008 focused on plans to move forward with unification of customs rates for the Union State, supposedly to be completed by the end of the year, and the use of the Russian ruble for mutual payments. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have both expressed interest in joining the Union State, and in order for them to do so, their application must first be approved by the Union Parliament, and then the presidents of Belarus and Russia must approve the Parliament’s resolution to accept Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The United States continues to support Belarus' adherence to arms control agreements and treaties into which it has previously entered, including the Open Skies Treaty, which Belarus ratified in 2001. Cooperation in all such agreements has been exemplary.
Humanitarian aid continues to be the primary engagement between the U.S. military and Belarus. Humanitarian assistance programs have provided a tangible, long-lasting service and have encouraged goodwill toward the U.S. Government and the U.S. military. Humanitarian assistance has two principal elements--the Humanitarian Assistance Program-Excess Property donates non-lethal goods and technical assistance for humanitarian purposes while other assistance focuses on projects such as the refurbishment of medical facilities and the construction of school buildings.
Direct military to military cooperation continues to be minimal. Belarus currently has no International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, and bilateral exercises and cooperation are nonexistent. There is a great desire on the Belarusian side to re-establish such cooperation and contacts, but it has not been possible due to the political situation. The only program that is still functional within this category is the attendance of Belarusian military officers at George C. Marshall Center programs.
Belarus is currently cooperating with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, through the Partnership for Peace Trust Fund, to destroy a total of 700,000 conventional landmines. Belarus also has a stockpile of over 3 million non-conventional anti-personnel mines, which it pledged to destroy by March 2008. However, the bidding process for the project of destroying the mines is still ongoing. In addition, there are numerous World War II-vintage minefields, which are still in place and kill or injure several Belarusians every year.
The Ministry of Defense is experiencing success in the area of military reform. Planned changes include combining the Air and Air Defense Forces, downsizing the force structure about 30% from 83,000 to 60,000, transitioning from a conscript to a contract force, and modernizing the command and control structure by creating a Ground Forces Command between the Ministry of Defense and the units in the field. Implementation of these reforms will take an unspecified amount of time.
There have been numerous reports of Belarusian sales or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies to states of concern, including state sponsors of terrorism. In April and September 2004, the United States imposed sanctions on a Belarusian entity, Belvneshpromservice, pursuant to the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 for the transfer to Iran of items on a multilateral export control list, or items having the potential of making a material contribution to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or cruise or ballistic missile systems.
As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus had a relatively well-developed industrial base; it retained this industrial base following the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The country also has a broad agricultural base and a high education level. Among the former republics of the Soviet Union, it had one of the highest standards of living. But Belarusians now face the difficult challenge of moving from a state-run economy with a high priority on military production and heavy industry to a civilian, free-market system.
After an initial outburst of capitalist reform from 1991-94, including privatization of state enterprises, creation of institutions of private property, and development of entrepreneurship, Belarus has greatly slowed under Lukashenka, and in many cases, reversed its pace of privatization and other market reforms while emphasizing the need for a "socially oriented market economy." About 80% of all industry remains in state hands, and foreign investment has been hindered by a climate hostile to business. The banks, which had been privatized after independence, were renationalized under Lukashenka. The government has also renationalized companies using the "Golden Share" mechanism, which allows government control in all companies with foreign investment, as well as through other administrative means.
Economic output, which declined for several years, revived in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the economy has been dependent on heavy discounts in oil and natural gas prices from Russia. Belarus has historically re-exported the oil and oil products at world market prices, using the windfall profits to subsidize state enterprises. In December 2006, Belarus and Russian gas giant Gazprom signed a deal which will eventually end Russia's subsidies of gas for Belarus. Under the deal, Gazprom raised prices for Belarus gas deliveries in 2007 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters, a significant rise from the subsidized previous price of $46, but still far less than the price paid by EU member states. The price for Russian gas will continue to increase incrementally until 2011, when it will equal the price paid by EU members. However, Belarusian officials stated in late 2008 and early 2009 Belarus’ interest in postponing the rise to EU prices until 2014-2015. Under the 2006 agreement, Gazprom will also gradually acquire a 50% stake in Beltransgaz, the Belarusian gas pipeline firm. In January 2007, Russia followed up with a steep duty on oil deliveries, which caused a significant drop in revenue from exports of oil products and Russian-sourced crude oil. The increase in gas prices and simultaneous moves by Moscow to reduce the profitability of refining Russian oil in Belarus for re-export disrupted plans to upgrade industries ranging from oil refining to cement production.
Peat, the country's most valuable mineral resource, is used for fuel, for fertilizer, 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 it 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, fertilizer, textiles, and consumer goods. The chief trading partners are Russia, Germany, Ukraine, and Poland.
As of 2010, Belarus produces an estimated 32.82 billion kWh of electricity (99% from fossil fuels) and exports 5.067 billion kWh and imports 7.767 billion kWh. Belarus has a crude oil reserve of 198 million bbl (1 January 2013 est.), and proven natural gas reserves of 2.832 billion cu m (1 January 2013 est.)
The massive April 26, 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant, across the border in Ukraine, had a devastating effect on Belarus. As a result of the radiation released, agriculture in a large part of the country was destroyed and many villages were abandoned. Resettlement and medical costs were substantial and long-term. Many living in Chernobyl afflicted zones have infrequent access to medical treatment due to remoteness, inadequate equipment, and substantial costs. Although the Belarusian authorities claim otherwise, many radiation monitoring stations, especially in rural areas, are either ill-equipped, poorly staffed, and/or no longer in operation. Resettlement of those in affected areas remains incomplete.
Due to the economic and political climate, little new foreign investment has occurred in recent years. In 2002, two major companies, the Swedish furniture firm Ikea and Russian beer producer Baltika, ended operations in Belarus due to unrealized government commitments or unwelcome interference. Ford Motors did the same in 1999. Economic pressures in 2007 may have led to the unexpected and non-transparent sale of a state telecommunications company to an Austrian firm.
Growth continued to be robust in 2007. Consumer price inflation averaged about 8.3% in 2007, but higher energy import prices are expected to drive up inflation for 2008 and subsequent years. Large wage increases, which were typical in the 1990s and early 2000s, fueled some increased consumption but also made Belarusian firms less competitive. Close to 20% of enterprises and a majority of collective farms currently operate at a loss, a percentage that has remained steady since 2002. Beginning in late 2008, Belarus increasingly felt the effects of the global financial crisis, as exports decreased to other severely impacted economies, notably Russia. In light of the crisis, Belarus secured a $2 billion loan from Russia in November 2008 and a $2.5 billion stand-by arrangement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in January 2009.
Belarus continues to be heavily dependent on Russia, with the potential for greater economic dependency in a long-proposed EU-style union between the two states. Prospects for an eventual union state remain weak, however, largely due to the apparent lack of interest on the part of the leadership of both countries. However, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have announced plans to move ahead with the formation of a customs union that they expect to be completed by 2010.
In the 2000s, Belarus and Russia had proposed to have a common currency, and the value of the Belarusian ruble was tied to the Russian ruble as an interim step. However, the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus announced that, starting in 2008, the Belarusian ruble would be tied to the United States dollar instead of the Russian ruble. By 2011, it was tied to a market basket of currencies that include the dollar.
The World Bank announced a new 4-year country assistance strategy for Belarus in December 2007, which focuses on global environment and energy challenges, enhances the competitiveness of the Belarusian economy to assure rising incomes, and protects the welfare of the most vulnerable. As part of the strategy, the World Bank is financing improvements to schools, hospitals, and homes for orphans, the elderly, and the disabled throughout Belarus, with particular emphasis on improving the energy efficiency of those facilities. In 2004, Belarus rejected a World Bank loan to help fight AIDS and tuberculosis. IMF cooperation is currently limited to policy and technical consultations.
- GDP (2006 est.): $36.99 billion (2006 IMF estimate).
- GDP growth rate (2007 est.): 5.5%.
- Per capita GDP (2006): $3,700.
- Natural resources: Forest land, peat deposits, potash, small amounts of oil and natural gas.
- Agriculture: Products--grain, potatoes, vegetables, flax, beef, milk.
- Industry: Types--machinery and transport equipment, chemical products, fabrics, and consumer goods.
- Trade (2005): Exports--$16.0 billion (refined petroleum, machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs, metals, and textiles). Major markets--Russia, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Great Britain, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Imports--$16.7 billion (mineral products, machinery and equipment, metals, crude oil and natural gas, chemicals, foodstuffs). Major suppliers--Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Lithuania.
- Exchange rate (April 2007): 2,145 BYR (Belarusian rubles)=U.S. $1.
Belarus has established ministries of energy, forestry, land reclamation, and water resources, as well as state committees to deal with ecology and safety procedures in the nuclear power industry. The most serious environmental issue in Belarus results from the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. About 70% of the nuclear fallout from the plant landed on Belarusian territory and about 20% of the land remains contaminated. Government restrictions on residence and use of contaminated land are not strictly enforced, and the government even announced plans in 2004 to increase agricultural production in the contaminated regions. The government receives U.S. assistance in its efforts to deal with the consequences of the radiation. Belarus also faces growing air, land, and water pollution levels from potash mining in the south of the country.
|License:||This work is in the Public Domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the U.S. Code|
|Source:||File available from the United States Federal Government.|