Belarus - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate
INTRODUCTION OF BELARUS
Belarus, 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. The great majority of its people are ethnic Belarusians, but many other ethnic groups also live in the country. Most of the people live in urban centers. The capital and largest city of Belarus is Minsk, located in the center of the country.
From medieval times until the late 20th century 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.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF BELARUS
The total area of Belarus is 207,595 sq km (80,153 sq mi). Generally level terrain is disrupted by a series of highlands that run from northeast to southwest. Belarus has four additional discernible geographic regions: an area of lakes, hills, and forests in the north; an agricultural region with mixed-conifer forests in the west; a broad elevated plain in the east; and the Poles’ye (also called the Pripet Marshes), a lowland of rivers and swamps that extends into Ukraine, in the south. The country’s highest point, Mount Dzyarzhynskaya (346 m/1,135 ft), is located in an upland area just southwest of Minsk.
Rivers and Lakes in Belarus
The Dnieper (known as the Dnyapro in Belarus) is the largest river in Belarus; it flows southward, almost the entire length of the country in the east, passing through the city of Mahilyow. Its important tributaries are the Pripyat’ in the south and the Berezina in the central region. Another major river is the Daugava, which flows westward from Russia through the northern tip of the republic. The Neman (known as the Nyoman in Belarus), also a west-flowing river, links the western part of Belarus with Lithuania. The Bug, a northward-flowing river along the country’s southwestern border with Poland, is linked at the city of Brest to a canal that connects with the Pripyat’ and subsequently the Dnieper. Belarus has thousands of lakes, the largest of which is Lake Narach in the northwest.
Plant and Animal Life in Belarus
Peat bogs and marshland cover about 25 percent of the country, while the soil of about 70 percent of Belarusian territory is podzolic (acidic with fairly large amounts of iron oxides). The forest region, though extensive, is not contiguous. Coniferous forests predominate, with pine the principal tree; spruce, oak, birch, alder, and ash trees also are found. The Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Puszcza Białowieska) Reserve in the southwest is part of the oldest existing European forest and the sanctuary of the virtually extinct European bison, or wisent. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the reserve a World Heritage Site in 1992 and made it a biosphere reserve the following year.
Belarus has more than 70 mammal species, including deer, fox, wild pig, wolves, and the common squirrel. There are 280 bird species, including doves, kestrels, wrens, bullfinches, and storks. Forests contain grass snakes and vipers, while rivers are the habitat of fur-bearing animals such as mink and otter.
Natural Resources of Belarus
Belarus is relatively poor in natural resources. It has plentiful peat deposits, which are used for fuel and as a mulching material in agriculture. In the southwest there are small reserves of hard coal, brown coal, and petroleum, but they are not easily accessible and remain undeveloped. Belarus also has deposits of potassium salt, limestone, and phosphates. About one-third of the republic is covered in forest.
Climate in Belarus
Belarus has a temperate continental climate, with cool temperatures and high humidity. Average annual precipitation is between 550 and 700 mm (22 and 30 in), with the highest amount occurring in the central region. Generally in Belarus there is precipitation every two days, in the form of either rain or snow. In January the average temperature is -6°C (21°F), and in July it is 18°C (64°F). Extreme temperatures are sometimes experienced in the north, where frosts of below -40°C (-40°F) have been recorded.
Environmental Issues in Belarus
The cities of Belarus, especially industrial centers such as Salihorsk and Navapolatsk, were heavily polluted largely by heavy industries developed after World War II (1939-1945). Today, automobile exhaust contributes greatly to air pollution in the cities. While Belarus was a part of the USSR, government controls on industrial pollution were virtually nonexistent. After independence the government turned its attention to the problem, although somewhat belatedly.
Contamination from radioactive fallout poses the most serious environmental problem in Belarus. The fallout resulted from an explosion in 1986 at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, 16 km (10 mi) south of the Belarusian border (see Chernobyl’ Accident). More than 60 percent of the radioactive cesium, strontium, and plutonium that was spewed into the atmosphere by the explosion landed in Belarus, after winds carried the radioactive plume over the country. This fallout affected about one-fifth of the country’s territory and more than 2 million of its people. These long-lived radioisotopes then settled in the soil, posing a long-term danger to groundwater, livestock, and produce.
More than 160,000 Belarusians were evacuated from their homes in heavily contaminated regions and moved to apartments in the cities. People in less contaminated regions resumed farming but had to rely mainly on locally produced foods, which were in short supply. A number of volunteer and nongovernmental organizations set up programs to bring children from contaminated areas of Belarus to live with families in healthier environments of western Europe during summer vacations. Scientists continue to study contamination and radiation-linked diseases in the region.
Belarus is an extensively wooded country, with pine, fir, and birch dominant in the north, and oak, elm, and white beech prevalent in the south. Little of the country’s woodland is protected, however. Biodiversity, soil pollution, and related issues are areas of concern. Another area of concern is the number of threatened species. For example, the wisent (European bison) was once plentiful in Belarus but is now endangered and protected by government decree. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to air pollution, biodiversity, environmental modification, and ozone layer protection.
THE PEOPLE OF BELARUS
In the last census conducted in Belarus in 1999, the population was 10,045,237; a 2009 estimate was 9,648,533, giving the country a population density of 47 persons per sq km (120 per sq mi). The most notable demographic trend since the 1950s has been the steady migration of the population from the villages to urban centers, and the correspondent aging of the population remaining in the rural areas. In 1959 urban residents accounted for 31 percent of the population; in 1979 they accounted for 55 percent; and in 2005 they accounted for about 72 percent. The most populated cities are Minsk, the capital and largest city; Homyel’; Mahilyow; Vitsyebsk; Hrodna; and Brest. All of these cities are industrial centers. Minsk, Homyel’, Hrodna, and Brest have universities.
Ethnic Groups and Languages in Belarus
The people of Belarus are composed of mainly five ethnic groups. In the 1999 census, people of Belarusian descent made up 81.2 percent of the population. Russians were the largest minority group with 11.4 percent of the population. Smaller minorities included Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews (considered both an ethnic and a religious group). No significant tensions exist between these groups, and many residents of Belarus feel some cultural affinity to Russia.
In 1990 Belarusian was designated the official state language. In 1995, after a national referendum on the subject, Russian also was elevated to a state language. Belarusian and Russian, along with Ukrainian, form the eastern branch of the Slavic languages of the Indo-European language family. These languages share many similarities in grammar and vocabulary. Like Russian and Ukrainian, Belarusian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Religion in Belarus
Many Belarusians follow the Eastern Orthodox faith, though there are large enclaves of Roman Catholics, particularly in the Hrodna region of western Belarus. Many of the Roman Catholics are ethnic Poles. Smaller groups adhere to the Eastern (Uniate) Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim faiths, among others. The government has adopted the Eastern Orthodox faith as the official state religion. Church services are well attended, particularly Easter services, for which there are three separate holidays.
Education in Belarus
Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 10 and 16. Higher education institutions include several universities, the largest of which is the Belarusian State University (founded in 1921) in Minsk. There also are a number of specialized academies and institutes for studies in technical arts, agriculture, medicine, economics, and other fields. The literacy rate is 100 percent.
While the current literacy rate is high, only about 30 percent of the population was literate in 1919. The Soviet regime emphasized compulsory education and claimed to have eliminated illiteracy by the 1950s. At the same time, after the 1920s there was little provision for education in the Belarusian language. In the post-World War II years, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the culture of the republic was thoroughly Russified through government policies that emphasized the Russian language. Schools that taught in the Belarusian language were closed, primarily in rural areas.
The process of Russification was reversed somewhat from 1985 into the early 1990s. In the years immediately after independence, it was expected that the Belarusian language would replace Russian in government and education. In the mid-1990s, however, the government began efforts to halt the revival of the Belarusian language by advocating Russian as the language of education, particularly in higher institutions. The government also reviewed all school textbooks for content, denouncing those with anti-Soviet viewpoints and planning for the return of some Soviet texts. These efforts were part of the Belarusian president’s broader goal of achieving greater integration with Russia.
CULTURE OF BELARUS
Belarusian culture developed most notably from the mid-19th century. In the late 1920s, the Soviet regime began to control cultural expression by imposing the dogma of socialist realism, which required all artists and writers to depict only the positive aspects of Soviet society. Since independence, state control of the arts has continued in Belarus. The Ministry of Culture carries out oversight functions such as the screening of written works prior to publication.
Literature in Belarus
In the early 1900s, poets Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas promoted the literary use of the Belarusian language, which was banned within the Russian Empire until 1905. Their works are considered the classics of Belarusian literature. Many Belarusian writers were prominent in the 1920s, including Mitrofan Donvar-Zapolsky and Ales’ Harun. By the 1930s “national” literature, which promoted the idea of Belarusian nationhood, was largely displaced by Soviet literature dedicated to the glorification of the regime. This development was particularly marked during and after World War II, when socialist realism was blended with patriotic accounts of the partisans and events of the war.
The main literary figures of Belarus today can be demarcated along generational lines. A senior group of writers includes those who experienced the war, including Vasil Bykov, author of numerous novels about that era and a pioneer of the East European variant of literary existentialism. This group also includes Yanka Bryl, an essayist and author whose works focus more on Western Europe. The middle generation includes poets Rygor Borodulin and Nila Gilevicha and dramatist Aleksey Dudarev. The younger group of literary figures includes poet Leonid Dran’ko-Maysyuk, and Vladimir Orlov and Pyotr Vasyuchenko, who write historical and experimental prose, respectively.
Music, Dance, and Theater in Belarus
Belarus’s opera and ballet companies have long-standing reputations. Their primary venue, the Opera and Ballet Theater (founded in 1932) in Minsk, holds regular and well-attended performances. The popular Theater of Musical Comedy (1970) is also located in the capital, as is the Belarusian Musical Academy (1932). Of the many orchestras in the country, the most prominent are the Belarusian State Philharmonic and the Belarusian State Symphony Orchestra. The state musical repertoire is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture.
The leading drama theater in Belarus is the Yanka Kupala Belarusian State Academic Theater (1920), located in Minsk. Other major theaters include the Gorky Russian Theater (1932) in Babruysk, and the Yakub Kolas Belarusian State Academic Theater (1925) in Minsk. The avant-garde Minsk theater Vol’naya Stsena (Free Stage) opened in 1990 to focus on Belarusian drama and classics.
Libraries and Museums in Belarus
The National Library of Belarus, noted for its selection of Belarusian literature, is the country’s largest library. This and other large libraries are located in Minsk. In addition, there are about 5,500 smaller libraries in the country.
Museums in Belarus include the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Belarus State Art Museum, and the National Museum of the History and Culture of Belarus, all located in Minsk. Several museums are dedicated to renowned writers such as Yakub Kolas, and others focus on Soviet-era political figures such as Petr Masherov. A small museum in Minsk denotes the meeting place of the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1898; after a split into two factions, the Bolshevik wing of this group eventually evolved into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
ECONOMY OF BELARUS
Reforms toward a market economy were delayed after Lukashenka was elected president in 1994. Although government plans called for rapid privatization, the government continued to maintain Soviet-style centralization. Most industries, including manufacturing and farming, remained state owned and operated. Some firms that had been privatized were renationalized under Lukashenka. Foreign investment in Belarus has been slow, in large part because of government control.
The 2007 GDP of Belarus was an estimated $44.8 billion. Trade and other services accounted for 48 percent of GDP; industry, including mining and manufacturing, 42 percent; and agriculture and forestry, 9 percent.
Manufacturing in Belarus
Manufacturing contributes most of the country’s industrial output. The most important manufactured products are tractors, trucks, motorcycles, and other vehicles; consumer products such as refrigerators and television sets; machinery; and chemicals. Industry in Belarus mainly developed in the Soviet period, particularly in the 1930s. After World War II, industry in Belarus was significantly modernized, and the country maintained high production levels for many years. Today the country’s industry suffers from inefficiency and outdated equipment. However, by maintaining close ties with Russia, Belarus has kept markets for its goods in that country.
Agriculture of Belarus
Collective and state farms established during the Soviet period remained the dominant forms of agricultural production in Belarus in the 2000s. The principal crops are potatoes, grains (especially barley and rye), vegetables, and flax. The 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power station in Ukraine contaminated much of the soil in southern Belarus, reducing the country’s total area of arable land by more than 10 percent. However, farming has resumed in southern Belarus.
Forestry in Belarus
Although Belarus possesses valuable stands of forest, the forestry industry is underdeveloped, with forest and woodland contributing a negligible amount of the country’s land use. The timber-producing areas and most sawmills are located in the Minsk, Brest, and Homyel’ regions. Forestry products include furniture and plywood.
Services in Belarus
During the Soviet period, the service industry employed only about 5 percent of the workforce. This sector of the economy has increased slowly. The greatest growth has occurred recently in the areas of insurance and business services, transportation, and tourism. The first McDonald’s fast-food restaurant opened in Minsk in 1996, but investment by Western firms has generally been limited. The number of restaurants has since expanded in the cities, especially in Minsk, but dining out is not a common experience for Belarusians. State-owned stores offering relatively low-quality goods predominate, although new supermarkets and glitzy malls have opened. Small kiosks, or free-standing merchandise booths, on the sidewalks sell newspapers, candy, and other goods.
Energy in Belarus
Belarus generates only a small part of its own energy needs. It is heavily reliant on oil and gas supplies from Russia. These fuel imports reach Belarus via pipelines: the Friendship Pipeline carrying oil, and the Natural Lights Pipeline carrying natural gas. The price of these resources has risen considerably since 1991, and Russia cut off supplies when disputes arose between the countries. Belarus has oil refineries at Mazyr and Polatsk.
Transportation and Communications in Belarus
Belarus has an extensive road and rail network. The system is geared primarily to former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries. The major railroad, which was built in the 1860s to connect Moscow and Warsaw, runs through Belarus via Minsk and Brest. The best-quality road in Belarus is that which links Moscow with Warsaw. The country’s largest international airport is east of Minsk. Belavia is the national airline of Belarus.
The state owns and operates all principal daily newspapers and the National State Television and Radio Company, as well as nearly all the country’s printing and broadcasting facilities. After taking office in 1994, the president of Belarus replaced editors of several state-owned newspapers with his own appointees and placed the legislature’s newspaper under the control of the executive branch. In 1996 the government restricted freedom of the press in an attempt to stifle political opposition. Though some small independent weekly newspapers still publish in Minsk, all of the large dailies are organs of the Council of Ministers and reflect the views of that government body.
Foreign Trade in Belarus
Belarus exports transport equipment (mainly tractors), machinery, chemicals, and foodstuffs. Imports include fuel, natural gas, industrial raw materials, textiles, and sugar. Fuel is Belarus’s largest import expenditure. Russia, which supplies most of the country’s fuel imports, is the most important trading partner. Other customers for the exports of Belarus are Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; sources for imports in addition to Russia are Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Lithuania. In 1992 Belarus became a member of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In 1996, however, the World Bank and the IMF suspended aid because of the government’s decision to halt privatization reforms.
Currency and Banking of Belarus
The unit of currency is the new Belarusian ruble (26,500 rubles equal U.S.$1; 1997), introduced in August 1994 and equivalent to ten old rubles. It has been the official national currency since January 1995, when circulation of Russian rubles ceased. In April 1994 Belarus and Russia agreed to the eventual merger of their monetary systems, but Russia has delayed the merger because of the high inflation and other economic problems in Belarus. In early 1998 the Belarusian ruble plunged in value, partly because of the government printing money to lend inefficient state enterprises. The central bank is the National Bank of Belarus in Minsk.
GOVERNMENT OF BELARUS
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 had the power to dismiss the prime minister and members of the Council of Ministers but not to dissolve the legislature or other elected governing bodies. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who was elected in the first presidential election of 1994, called a referendum in 1996 on a proposal to broaden his presidential authority (including the power to dissolve the legislature), extend his term from five to seven years, and create a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature. According to official tallies, more than 70 percent of voters approved the proposed changes. Despite widespread allegations of vote fraud, Lukashenka immediately dissolved the opposition-led Supreme Soviet and created a new legislature composed of his supporters. He also signed the changes into law as constitutional amendments. All citizens have the right to vote from the age of 18.
Executive of Belarus
Under the constitution a president is the head of state of Belarus. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government, with the approval of the lower house of the legislature, the House of Representatives. The president also appoints and dismisses the ministers who make up the government. Presidential appointments also largely determine the members of the judiciary and the Central Electoral Commission. Amendments to the constitution in 1996 invested the president with the power to dissolve the legislature. In 2004 a constitutional amendment abolished a provision limiting the president to two consecutive terms in office.
Legislature of Belarus
Under the 1994 constitution, Belarus was to have a unicameral legislature (Supreme Soviet) of 260 members elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of five years. Under the constitutional amendments of 1996, the Supreme Soviet was replaced by a bicameral National Assembly, consisting of the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Council of the Republic (upper house). The members of the House of Representatives are directly elected by the people. Most of the members of the Council of the Republic are chosen by regional councils; some are appointed by the president. The term of office for members of both houses is four years.
Judiciary in Belarus
The judicial system of Belarus consists of three high courts: the Supreme Court, the Economic Court, and the Constitutional Court. The latter court is charged with protecting the constitution, and its decisions are not subject to appeal. It has the power to review the constitutionality of presidential edicts and the regulatory decisions of the other two high courts. As amended in 1996, the constitution allows the president to appoint 6 of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court, including its chairperson; the Council of the Republic appoints the remaining members. The president also appoints judges to all other courts of the republic, including the Supreme Court and Economic Court.
Local Government of Belarus
Belarus is divided administratively into six oblasts, or regions, which have the same names as their largest cities. The Minsk, Hrodna, Homyel’, Mahilyow, Vitebsk, and Brest oblasts are each divided into smaller administrative districts, called rayony. The oblasts have their own councils for the administration of regional affairs. In addition, the president has appointed a plenipotentiary, or diplomatic agent, in each oblast to report local affairs to the executive.
Political Parties of Belarus
The political opposition has little voice in Belarus. Parties supporting President Lukashenka dominate government and the legislature. Opposition parties have had little success in elections, which have drawn international criticism for failing to meet the standards of a democracy.
International Organizations in Belarus
Belarus is a member of approximately 50 international organizations, most notably the United Nations (UN), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the World Health Organization (WHO). In early 1995 Belarus joined the Partnership for Peace program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a plan designed to promote military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO states.
HISTORY OF BELARUS
Human settlement in Belarusian territory dates to prehistoric times, but there is no consensus among scholars on the origins of the Belarusian state. The three early Slavic tribes from which the Belarusians are believed to have derived are the Krivichi, Dregovichi, and Radimichi, who between the 6th and 8th centuries settled first on the Daugava River and later in the vicinity of the Pripyat’ and Sozh rivers. The medieval period of Belarusian history dates most notably from the last quarter of the 10th century, when Prince Rogvold ruled the local principality of Polotsk (Polatsk). In the late 10th century Polotsk was annexed into Kievan Rus, the first significant East Slavic state. At least three principalities—Smolensk, Polotsk, and Turov-Pinsk—existed on what later became Belarusian territory. The Tatar invasions that destroyed Kievan Rus and the city of Kiev (Kyiv) in 1240 left Belarusian territory relatively unscathed.
In the 14th century Belarusian territory became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its capital at Vilnius. Slavs heavily outnumbered the titular nation and retained privileges, and state business was for a time conducted in the Belarusian language. By the 16th century a Slavic culture had begun to emerge, symbolized by the translation of the Bible into the Belarusian language by Frantsysk Skaryna in 1517. In 1569, however, the Grand Duchy formed a political union with Poland by the Union of Lublin, forming the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth) and making the sovereign of Poland also the grand duke of the Lithuanian kingdom. In this period, Belarusians faced pressure from the Poles to convert from the Orthodox Church to Roman Catholicism. The union lasted until the late 18th century, by which time the lands of Belarus had fallen under the control of the Russian Empire as a result of the partitions of Poland that took place in 1772, 1793, and 1795.
Rule of the Russian Empire
The period of imperial Russian rule has been widely perceived as one of repression of cultural and political initiatives on Belarusian territory. In 1839 the Eastern Catholic (Uniate) Church in the Polotsk region was dissolved, and the Lithuanian statute of 1588 that codified civil rights was prohibited. In 1863 the young Belarusian Kastus Kalinovsky played a prominent role in the widespread Polish uprising against the Russian Empire; he was publicly executed after his capture by the imperial authorities in March 1864. Belarusian culture nevertheless made great strides in the 19th century, and during this period the concept of a Belarusian nation first truly emerged.
The vast majority of ethnic Belarusians were villagers at the turn of the century. Although industrial development had progressed rapidly in the late 19th century, Belarus lagged behind most territories of the Russian Empire. The major Belarusian urban centers—such as Vilnius, Minsk, Homyel’, and Mahilyow—contained Jewish majorities, with Poles and Russians constituting the largest minorities. In 1905 the Russian Empire permitted Belarusians to publish newspapers and books in their native language, and national activities became more widespread. The most prominent publication was the newspaper Nasha Niva (Our Cornfield), which was the main Belarusian cultural publication in Vilnius until 1915.
The Soviet Period
The Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew the Russian monarchy in February (or March, in the Western, or Gregorian, calendar), and the Belarusian Socialist Hramada (Assembly) called for the reorganization of the Russian Empire as a federation. Later in the same month, all Belarusian political groups united to form the Belarusian National Committee, which was later renamed the Central Rada (Council). In the October (or November) phase of the revolution, the Bolsheviks (militant socialists) seized power in Russia. In Minsk, an All-Belarusian Congress took place in December to establish a democratic, multiparty government, but the Bolsheviks disbanded it by force of arms before it could complete its deliberations.
In March 1918 most of Belarus came under German control by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was the result of the Bolsheviks’ negotiations with Germany to end Russia’s involvement in World War I (1914-1918). Belarusian nationalists took the opportunity to declare the creation of the Belarusian People’s (National) Republic, and Germany guaranteed the new state’s independence. The republic proved short-lived, however, because of Germany’s defeat in the war in November. Red Army invasions secured the Bolshevik regime on January 1, 1919, and the Belorussian (or Byelorussian) Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was proclaimed.
In March 1921 the Treaty of Rīga, which formally ended a war between Russia and Poland, divided the eastern and western portions of Belorussia’s territory between the two countries. In December 1922 the Belorussian SSR, then only a fraction of its former size, became a constituent, founding republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the 1920s the Belorussian republic incorporated most of the ethnic Belarusian territories that had been annexed into Russia. By the terms of a nonaggression treaty between the USSR and Germany, the Hrodna, Brest, and western part of Minsk provinces were annexed from Poland in September 1939, nearly doubling the size of Belorussia. Vilnius and its surrounding region were ceded to Lithuania.
The Belorussian republic was permitted to develop culturally through the 1920s. Beginning in the late 1920s, however, the Soviet regime became increasingly oppressive under USSR dictator Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s, Stalin masterminded a massive, violent purge of the population—targeting especially intellectuals and political opponents—throughout the Soviet Union, carried out by the Soviet secret police. In the worst known incident in Belorussia, approximately 250,000 people were rounded up and executed in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk. In addition, countless thousands were exiled to gulags (forced labor camps) in Siberia. During this period, national development ended in Belorussia, and Russian language and culture were promoted by the state.
World War II
In 1941, during World War II, the Nazi German army invaded Belorussia as part of a major offensive against the Soviet Union. The Nazis occupied the republic, imposing a brutal regime in which an estimated 2 million people perished. Jews, who at the time were the second-largest ethnic group in Belorussia, were especially targeted for imprisonment and mass executions in the Nazi death camps (see Holocaust). By the summer of 1942 the republic became the location of an extensive partisan movement, directed from Moscow, which played a major role in undermining the Nazi regime. In 1944 the Soviet Red Army drove out Nazi forces.
In the postwar years, Belorussia developed into one of the Soviet Union’s most modern manufacturing regions. The republic became the major Soviet center for the production of tractors and automobiles and an important base for chemicals and other products. Concurrently, the postwar years were marked by rapid urbanization. Minsk developed as the major center of economic, cultural, and political life and the largest urban center with a quarter of the republic’s urban residents. Communist Party loyalists dominated the leadership from the mid-1950s through 1980, with first Kiryl Mazurov and then the popular Petr Masherov leading the Soviet republic through a period of relative prosperity. Underlying this evident progress was a rigorous Soviet policy of promoting the Russian language and culture, resulting in a thorough Russification of the non-Russian population.
The Collapse of Soviet Rule
In 1986 Belorussia was devastated by the explosion at the Chernobyl’ nuclear power station in Ukraine (see Chernobyl’ Accident). 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, Soviet leader 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 Soviet republics to declare sovereignty (the right to self government). Although a largely symbolic act, it took on new significance when Communist hardliners attempted a coup against 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.
Belarus Since Independence
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. Hardline 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-ever presidential election in Belarus 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. The victory of Lukashenka, a former state farm manager, signaled support from voters for his campaign against corruption and for closer ties with Russia.
Power Struggles in Government
As president, Lukashenka combined genuine popularity, especially in rural regions, with a repressive regime that openly emulated the Soviet past. Lukashenka 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 authoritarian policies. In April 1996 the largest of these protests, involving about 70,000 people, resulted in numerous arrests and police-inflicted injuries. 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 with more than 70 percent of the vote 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, the National Assembly, composed entirely of his supporters.
Ties with Russia
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 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 1998 Yeltsin and Lukashenka signed an accord for the two countries to eventually merge their currencies, customs regulations, and tax collection systems. Assistance from Russia has enabled Lukashenka to keep the economy relatively stable.
Legislative elections in 2000 were boycotted by the political opposition and reinstated a National Assembly mostly loyal to Lukashenka. In 2001 Lukashenka was reelected president. However, the election was marred by arrests and harassment of political opponents, a strong bias against opposition candidates in state-run media, and widespread allegations of vote rigging.
In the 2004 legislative elections not a single candidate from any of the opposition parties won a seat in the National Assembly. International election observers said the election was seriously flawed due to widespread vote tampering in favor of pro-Lukashenka candidates, who won all the seats. In addition, a concurrent referendum on a constitutional amendment lifted the two-term limit on the presidency and gave Lukashenka the option to run for two additional terms.
Presidential elections were held in 2006. Lukashenka claimed victory with more than 86 percent of the vote. International observers and Western nations again denounced the election as seriously flawed. The controversy prompted mass public demonstrations, leading to at least 1,000 arrests. One of the two main opposition candidates was arrested for helping direct the demonstrations and speaking out against Lukashenka, who insisted that the elections were fair.
In the 2008 legislative elections all 110 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the National Assembly, were again won by pro-Lukashenka candidates. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the election, said it fell short of “international standards.” The OSCE said it found “several cases of deliberate falsification of results” and that election monitors were denied access to about a third of polling places, adding to the widespread perception that Belarus had yet to achieve a democratic process. In a bow to critics, Lukashenka released some of his opponents from prison prior to the election and permitted about 70 opposition candidates to run for office, but none of them were elected.