Belarus (03/96)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Official Name:
Republic of Belarus

Area: 207,600 sq. km. (80,100 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Kansas.
Cities: Capital--Minsk.
Terrain: Generally flat and contains much marshland.
Climate: Cold winters, cool and moist summers, transitional between continental and maritime.

Nationality: Noun--Belarusian(s). Adjective--Belarusian.
Population: 10.4 million.
Population growth rate: 0.3%.
Ethnic groups: Byelorussian (78%), Russian (13%), Polish, Ukrainian, other.
Religions: Eastern Orthodox, other.
Languages: Belarusian (official), Russian (predominant working language), other.
Education: Literacy--97%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--19/1,000. Life expectancy--71 yrs.
Work force (4.9 million): Industry and construction--40%. Agriculture and forestry--22%. Health, science, and education--16%. Other--22%.

Type: Republic.
Constitution: Adopted 1994.
Independence: 1991 (from Soviet Union).
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister (head of government), Council of Ministers (cabinet). Legislative--unicameral Supreme Soviet (parliament). Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Six voblasti and one municipality.
Political parties: Belarusian Popular Front, Party of Popular Accord, Union of Belarusian Entrepreneurs, Belarusian Party of Communists, Belarus Peasant Party, Belarusian Socialist Party, Belarusian Social Democrat Party, Agrarian Party of Belarus, United Democratic Party of Belarus, Independent Trade Unions.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.

GDP (1994): $53 billion.
GDP growth rate (1994): -20%.
Per capita GDP (1994): $5,100.
Natural resources: Forest land, peat deposits, small amounts of oil and natural gas.
Agriculture: Products--grain, potatoes and other vegetables, meat, milk.
Industry: Types--machinery and transport equipment, chemical products, fabrics, and consumer goods.
Trade: Exports--(about 60% go to CIS countries and 40% to non-CIS countries; for 1994, exports to countries outside the former Soviet Union were $968 million): machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs. Major markets--Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria. Imports--(about 70% come from CIS countries and 30% from non-CIS countries; for 1994, imports from countries outside the former Soviet Union were $534 million): fuel, natural gas, industrial raw materials, textiles, sugar. Major suppliers--Russia, Ukraine, Poland. Exchange rate (March 1996): 12,900 rubels=U.S.$1.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 brought an end to the Cold War and created 15 new countries with which to establish bilateral relations. The United States opened an embassy in Belarus' capital, Minsk, in February 1992. The first U.S. Ambassador was David Heywood Swartz, who assumed his post on August 25, 1992--the first anniversary of Belarusian independence. Kenneth Spencer Yalowitz succeeded Ambassador Swartz in November 1994.

U.S.-Belarusian Economic Relations
In February 1993, a bilateral trade treaty guaranteeing reciprocal most-favored-nation status entered into force. In January 1994, the U.S. and Belarus signed a bilateral investment treaty, which has been ratified by Belarus and is awaiting ratification by the U.S. Senate. In February 1996, a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty was initialed. A formal signing and ratification by both countries' legislatures are pending. Negotiations are continuing on a treaty for the avoidance of double taxation.

An Overseas Private Investment Corporation agreement was signed in June 1992 and is in force. Belarus is eligible for Export-Import Bank short-term financing insurance for U.S. investments. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) granted standby credit in September 1995, but Belarus has fallen off the program and did not receive the second tranche of funding, which had been scheduled for regular intervals throughout 1996.

Belarus welcomes joint ventures with American companies, particularly in computer software, electrical components, telecommunications equipment, and consumer goods. A 1991 foreign investment law provides protection from nationalization. However, rubel inconvertibility and other restrictions, such as on land ownership, continue to hamper investment opportunities.

U.S. Assistance to Belarus
As of September 1995, the U.S. had provided about $73.8 million in humanitarian aid shipments, $229 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food assistance, and $19 million in technical assistance to Belarus. Current U.S. assistance priorities in Belarus are focused on programs that support defense industry conversion (see Defense and Military Issues), provide support for economic restructuring and small-scale democracy-building efforts, and assist in social transition.

At its inception, the U.S. assistance program in Belarus was oriented toward providing humanitarian relief. In January 1992, the U.S. initiated the Coordinating Conference on Assistance to the New Independent States (NIS) in response to the humanitarian emergencies facing these states. The resulting Operation Provide Hope, coordinated by the Department of Defense, provided desperately needed food, fuel, medicine, and shelter. The U.S. shipped to Belarus pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for areas affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster, provided the country with Department of Defense excess medicines and supplies, and shipped components of a Department of Defense acute care hospital to several Minsk hospitals. Another significant shipment of aid--by airlift and by train transport--is scheduled for the 10th anniversary of Chornobyl in April 1996.

USDA has provided concessional loans to Belarus for the purchase of U.S. agricultural commodities and provided corn and other commodities through the Food for Progress program. In addition, the country has received soybean meal and feed wheat through the Food for Peace program and Section 416 (b) of the Agricultural Act, respectively.

The U.S. technical assistance program now targets areas of maximum impact in the promotion of a market economy and a democratic society. U.S.-funded programs have helped carry out small-scale privatization in three cities in Belarus, where over 50% of communal enterprises have been privatized. (As of February 1996, however, less than 10% of all Belarusian firms had been privatized.) Technical assistance and training to selected Belarusian medical institutions through a hospital partnership program have improved the quality and availability of services to control and treat widespread, critical health problems. Advisers in areas as diverse as issuance of government securities to individual entrepreneurship to agribusiness have worked to introduce new, market-oriented concepts to their Belarusian counterparts.

The U.S. has provided rule-of-law and law enforcement assistance to Belarus. An advisor on rule-of-law issues has been resident in Minsk since 1992 and has provided advice on the drafting of legislation; development of a cadre of lawyers, targeting law students in particular; and other issues. On law enforcement, U.S. experts are training Belarusian counterparts in modern techniques of combating financial crimes, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking. In addition, Belarusian officials have participated in training and exchange programs on rule-of-law, copyright legislation, independent media, and educational reform.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Kenneth Yalowitz
Deputy Chief of Mission--John Boris
Political/Economic Officers--Anthony Godfrey and Tamara Fitzgerald
Consular Officer--Janine Boiarsky
Administrative Officer--Gregory Slotta
Regional Security Officer--Michael Wilkins
Agricultural Officer--Mary Revelt (resident in Moscow, Russia)
Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--Janet Demiray

The U.S. embassy in Minsk, Belarus is at Starovilenskaya #46; tel: 375-172-31-5000; fax: 375-172-34-7853.

Belarus has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and the first recorded settlements date back to the 6th century AD. The princes of Kiev ruled Belarus until the invasion of the Mongols in 1240, when most of its towns were destroyed.

The region came under the control of powerful Lithuanians and, in 1386, under the Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellonian Dynasty. For centuries, the Poles and the Muscovites struggled bitterly over Belarus. In 1772, Catherine the Great gained control over part of the country, and, by 1795, Russia ruled all of Belarus.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the country again became a European battleground. Napoleon passed through Belarus--and fought there--in 1812, and the Germans fought the Soviets on Belarusian territory in World War I. Although a Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in January 1919, fighting with Poland continued until 1921.

Belarus suffered heavy losses in World War II, when some 2.2 million inhabitants perished. The postwar period saw a significant rebirth--especially in the economic sphere. On August 25, 1991, Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

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 has one of the highest standards of living. But Belarusians face the difficult challenge of moving from a state-run economy with high priority on military production to a civilian, free-market system.

The government is developing plans to privatize local and state enterprises through a voucher system, but progress has been slow. A Council of Ministers' decree allows privatization to proceed until Belarus' Supreme Soviet passes legislation. President Lukashenko signed the 1996 privatization plan in January of this year. The government has continued to subsidize foodstuffs and other basic goods to prevent social strife. The economy remains dependent on Russia for energy supplies and raw materials. About 80% of Belarus' products are exported to Russia.

Economic activity in Belarus has stagnated, as businesses have awaited the outcome of talks on a monetary union with Russia, including negotiations over an exchange rate between Belarusian rubels and Russian rubles. Belarus has sought to join the Russian ruble zone in order to stabilize its currency and boost its trade links with Russia. The monthly rate of inflation in Belarus reached 40% in February 1994 but by May 1995 had dropped to 3.6%. An agreement on a monetary union will eventually be part of a planned April 1996 bilateral treaty that could bring about economic union between Belarus and Russia (see Foreign Relations).

Environmental Issues
Belarus has established ministries of energy, forestry, land reclamation, and water resources and state committees to deal with ecology and safety procedures in the nuclear power industry. The most serious environmental issue in Belarus results from the accident at the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear power plant. About 70% of the nuclear fallout from the plant landed on Belarusian territory, and about 25% of the land is considered uninhabitable. But government restrictions on residence and use of contaminated land are not strictly enforced. As noted, the government receives U.S. assistance in its efforts to deal with the consequences of the radiation.

Belarus has long been a member of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) and has been active in its environmental meetings. The country has signed key ECE conventions on long-range transboundary environmental issues, but implementation has suffered from a lack of resources.

Belarus is making gradual progress in establishing a democratic system. Under the planned April 1996 bilateral treaty (see Foreign Relations), Belarus' political structure may become joined in some form with that of Russia over the coming years, although no such changes appear imminent.

Following Belarus' declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, most power passed to the Council of Ministers (cabinet), whose decrees have the force of law. A new constitution took effect on March 30, 1994. It established for the first time a presidency and a constitutional court. Presidential elections in July 1994 resulted in the seating of Aleksander Lukashenko as Belarus' first president.

Belarus' Supreme Soviet (parliament) is technically the highest branch of government. Its then-chairman--elected to that post in January 1994 by the parliament following a vote of "no-confidence" in his predecessor--was considered head of state until President Lukashenko's July 1994 election. Following a dormant period in 1995--during which it lacked the constitutionally mandated quorum because not enough deputies garnered the required percentage of votes--the Supreme Soviet was able to meet on January 9, 1996. Semyon Sharetsky, founder of the Agrarian Party, became chairman and parliamentary speaker on January 11, 1996.

Both Belarus' Council of Ministers and its Supreme Soviet are dominated by a coalition of former members of the Communist and Agrarian Parties. In February 1993, the Supreme Soviet repealed an August 1991 resolution that had temporarily suspended the activity of the Communist Party. The principal opposition party is the nationalist organization, the Belarusian Popular Front.

Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, religions, and movement all increased in 1995. Despite the passage of a press law in 1994 prohibiting the existence of a press monopoly, the government maintained a virtual monopoly over the press since it owns nearly all printing and broadcasting facilities and manages the distribution of all print media through official outlets. There are, however, some private newspapers printed in Belarusian and Russian.

Freedom of assembly is restricted under former Soviet law, which is still valid. It requires an application at least 10 days in advance of the event. The local government must respond positively or negatively at least five days prior to the event. Public demonstrations occurred frequently in 1995, but always under government oversight.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The majority of Belarusians are Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the church has been criticized by nationalists for its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Citizens are free to travel within the country. But Belarusians must register their place of residence and may not move without official permission. The Ministry of the Interior has proposed legislation abolishing both regulations.

The constitution provides for the right of workers--except state security and military personnel--to voluntarily form and join independent unions and to carry out actions in defense of workers' rights, including the right to strike. In practice, however, these rights are limited. The two major independent trade unions are the Free Trade Union of Belarus and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union.

Principal Government Officials
President--Aleksander Lukashenko
Prime Minister--Mikhail Chigir
Foreign Minister--Vladimir Senko
Ambassador to the U.S.--Syarghei Martynov
Ambassador to the UN--Aleksander Sychov

Belarus' embassy in the U.S. is at 1619 New Hampshire Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009; tel: 202-986-1604; fax: 202-986-1805.

In Lisbon on May 23, 1992, the United States signed a protocol to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Belarus, Russia, Kazakstan, and Ukraine (those states on whose territory strategic nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union are located). The protocol makes the four states party to the START Treaty and commits them to reductions in strategic nuclear weapons within the seven-year period provided for in the treaty.

On February 4, 1993, the Belarusian parliament ratified the START Treaty and voted to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state. The chairman of the Belarusian parliament deposited Belarus' instrument of accession to the NPT with President Clinton on July 22, 1993, at the White House.

The U.S. has signed six agreements with Belarus to provide more than $75 million in Nunn-Lugar assistance. These agreements call for providing Belarus with nuclear accident emergency response equipment; a government-to-government communications link for transmission of START and intermediate-range nuclear forces notifications; expanded military-to-military contacts; and assistance for defense conversion, environmental restoration, and establishment of an effective export control system.

On October 30, 1992, Belarus signed the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty to reduce and numerically limit key categories of military equipment, such as tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles, combat aircraft, and combat helicopters, and to provide for destruction of weaponry in excess of those limits. Although Belarus did not comply with the CFE Treaty deadline of November 1995, destructions were proceeding in accordance with the treaty in early 1996. President Lukashenko pledged publicly in March 1996 that destruction would be complete by the end of 1996.

Belarus is actively working to become a full member of the international community. 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 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO's Partnership for Peace, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

The government has supported CIS and OSCE efforts to resolve regional disputes. Minsk serves as the headquarters of the CIS, and President Lukashenko took an active role in the January 1996 CIS summit in Moscow.

On March 29, 1996, Belarus, Russia, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan signed an accord calling for closer political, economic, trade, and cultural integration, along the lines of the EU. It envisions a common market of goods and services, unified transport, joint communications, and a common currency. The agreement is valid for five years and can be extended.

Belarus and Russia announced plans on March 23, 1996 to sign a treaty on April 2 to form a bilateral union. Such an arrangement would be the closest any former Soviet republic has come to merging again with Russia. Although the April 1996 treaty would tie them more closely together culturally, would include joint political bodies, and might mean economic union, each nation would retain its sovereignty. Implementation of the treaty's provisions likely would take several years to complete.