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 two-thirds 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
Belarus is a low-lying plain, with hilly uplands that seldom exceed 300 m (about 1000 ft) in elevation. In the south are vast tracts of sparsely inhabited swampland known as the Pripyat' Marshes. Forests cover about 30 percent of the area. Pine, Fir, and Birch predominate in the North, and Oak, Elm, and White Beech are prevalent in the South. The republic has about 4000 lakes and rivers. Notable rivers are the Daugava in the north, the Nemunas in the west, and the Dnepr and its tributaries—the Pripyat', Beregina, and Sozh rivers—in the East, central, and southern portions of the country. The climate is generally temperate and humid, with colder, continental conditions dominant in the east. Wild boar and elk can be found in the forests, while beaver are abundant in the wetlands. Wisents (European bison), once plentiful in Belarus, are now endangered and protected by government decree.
Belarusians, who speak a Slavic language closely related to Russian, comprise more than three-fourths of the total population, which was estimated at 10,297,000 in 1991. Russians are the largest minority with 13.2 percent of the population. Other minorities include Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians. Orthodox Christianity is the predominant religion among Belarusians, although Catholicism is also practiced in large numbers, especially in the western portions of the country. Life expectancy, infant mortality, and other health-related statistics have been generally positive, although fallout from the Chernobyl' accident in 1986 has clearly jeopardized Belarus's high standing in health statistics.
The population of Belarus was devastated by World War II (1939-1945). It took 25 years for the numbers to return to prewar levels. After World War II, Belarus, traditionally an agrarian society, underwent rapid urbanization. The proportion of urban dwellers more than doubled from 1959 to 1989, from 31 percent to 65 percent. Minsk, the capital and largest city, grew rapidly, with an estimated population of 1,613,000 in 1990. Other large cities include Homyel' (506,000), Mahilyow (363,000), Vitsyebsk (356,000), Hrodna (277,000), Brest (269,000), and Babruysk (223,000).
Agriculture, which dominated the economy of Belarus for centuries, has been replaced by industry as the republic's leading economic sector. Agriculture accounts for about 25 percent of total net material product and 30 percent of total employment. Livestock breeding and dairy farming contribute more than half of all agricultural production, but crop cultivation is also important. Principal crops include potatoes, flax, wheat, sugar beets, and grains (barley, oats, and rye). A substantial amount of wetlands has been drained and converted into agricultural land, which ranks among the most fertile and productive in the country. Industry was almost completely destroyed in World War II, but it recovered rapidly in postwar years. It now accounts for about 50 percent of total net material product and 30 percent of total employment. Belarus produces motor vehicles, chemicals, lumber products, machinery, and consumer goods, such as televisions and bicycles. Also important is the manufacture of linen, woolen, and cotton fabrics. The republic has large deposits of peat, which are used to fuel industrial and power plants. Belarus has an extensive system of highways and railroads, and through its navigable rivers and the Dnepr-Bug Canal system, it has access to the Baltic and Black seas.
Economic production declined in Belarus in the early 1990s, but not as sharply as in many other former Soviet republics. Belarus' economy, suffering from a disruption of trade ties and steep increases in the price and availability of Russian oil and other raw materials, suffered a decrease in production of about 11 percent in 1992—less than half the drop in production that occurred in many other former Soviet republics. But the economy deteriorated more rapidly in 1993, as inflation exceeded 25 percent, and the gross domestic product dropped by about 14 percent. Worsening economic conditions led to political pressure by conservatives for economic union with Russia. In April 1994 an agreement was signed to establish a monetary union with Russia that would reduce trade and customs restrictions, and abandon the Belarusian currency, the rubel, in favor of the Russian ruble. Belarus is the second former Soviet republic after Tajikistan to reinstate the ruble as the official currency and relinquish monetary control to Russia.
Plans for developing a nuclear power industry to relieve the republic's dependence on outside sources of energy are under consideration. Belarus, of all the former Soviet republics, received the highest amounts of radiation fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl' nuclear accident.
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 could dismiss the prime minister and members of the Council of Ministers, but not the legislature or other elected governing bodies. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was elected in the first presidential election of 1994, initiated a referendum in 1996 with a proposal to amend the constitution to broaden his presidential authority, extend his term from five to seven years, and create a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature. On November 24, amid widespread allegations of vote fraud, official tallies showed the president's proposal had passed with more than 70 percent of the vote. Lukashenka immediately dissolved the opposition-led Supreme Soviet and created a new legislature composed of his supporters. Although the Constitutional Court previously ruled the referendum results were to be used only for advisory purposes, within days the new legislature passed a law making the results binding. The next day, November 28, Lukashenka signed into law the new constitution. Belarus is now a presidential republic in which the opposition has little voice. All citizens have the right to vote from the age of 18.
During the Middle Ages, the territory that is now Belarus was divided into a number of Slavic principalities. In 1240 invading Tatars destroyed Kyyiv, the center of Slavic culture at the time, and most of the area of present-day Belarus, subsequently was annexed by Lithuania. Linked to Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty from 1386, Belarusian territory became part of Lithuania-Poland when the two states were completely merged in 1569. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the area served as a battleground for wars between Poland and Russia. With the partitioning of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia acquired present-day Belarus. When French forces under Napoleon invaded in 1812, the land was laid waste by retreating Russians and remained extremely poor throughout the 19th century. Many Belarusians emigrated to Siberia or the United States.
An independent Belarusian state did not appear until the 20th century, although a movement of national self-determination began to take shape at the end of the 19th century. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, a Belarusian democratic republic was proclaimed in March 1918. The republic soon was crushed by the Bolsheviks, who proclaimed a Soviet republic in January 1919. Poland, determined to reestablish its historical boundaries, also invaded the country. Poland received the western part of Belarus under the terms of the Treaty of Riga, signed in 1921. The remaining land became a constituent republic of the USSR in 1922. After the defeat of Poland by Germany in 1939, the USSR recaptured western Belarus and added it to the Belorusian SSR, thereby nearly doubling the area of the republic. In June 1941, during World War II, the Germans invaded Belarus, but they were expelled in 1944 after laying waste to the country. Except for certain small areas allocated to Poland, the 1939 political boundaries of the Belorusian SSR were confirmed by the terms of the treaty between Poland and the USSR in 1945. In the same year, the republic became an independent member of the United Nations.
In 1986 Belorussia was devastated by the explosion at the Chernobyl' nuclear power station in Ukraine. More than one-fifth 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 hard-liners 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.
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. Hard-line 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.
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 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 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.
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 merge their currencies, customs regulations, and tax collection systems in 1999.
The article above was compiled from major contributions by:-
(a) Kurt E. Engelmann:
("Belarus," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.)
(b) David R. Marples, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Professor of History, University of Alberta, Canada. Author of Belarus: From Soviet Rule to Nuclear Catastrophe and other books.
and (c) the site www.belarusian.com (which sadly no longer exists).
© Jimsky's Emporium 2004 - 2008.