Belarus is a landlocked nation of nine-and-a-half million people in eastern Europe between Poland (to the west) and Russia (to the east) and between Latvia and Lithuania (to the north) and Ukraine (to the south).
Glacial scouring accounts for the flatness of Belarusian terrain and for its 11,000 lakes.
Its major environmental issues include:
- soil pollution from pesticide use; and,
- southern part of the country contaminated with fallout from 1986 nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine
After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration. 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 president, Aleksandr Lukashenko has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means. Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion remain in place.
Location: Eastern Europe, east of Poland
Geographic Coordinates: 53 00 N, 28 00 E
Area: 207,600 sq km (land: 202,900 sq km; water: 4,700 sq km)
Land Boundaries: 3,306 km (Latvia 171 km, Lithuania 680 km, Poland 605 km, Russia 959 km, Ukraine 891 km)
Terrain: generally flat and contains much marshland. The highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (346 m) and the lowest point is Nyoman River (90 m)
Climate: cold winters, cool and moist summers; transitional between continental and maritime
Ecology and Biodiversity
Central European mixed forests covers the south and west of the country while Sarmatic mixed forests covers the north and east.
See also: Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park
People and Society
Population: 9,542,883 (July 2012 est.)
0-14 years: 14.2% (male 699,048/female 660,130)
15-64 years: 71.7% (male 3,328,548/female 3,542,359)
65 years and over: 14.1% (male 427,086/female 920,381) (2011 est.)
Population Growth Rate: -0.362% (2012 est.)
Birthrate: 9.73 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)
Death Rate: 13.73 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)
Net Migration Rate: 0.38 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)
Life Expectancy at Birth: 71.48 years
male: 65.88 years
female: 77.42 years (2012 est.)
Total Fertility Rate: 1.27 children born/woman (2012 est.)
Languages: Belarusian (official) 36.7%, Russian (official) 62.8%, other 0.5% (includes small Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking minorities) (1999 census)
Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): 99.6%
Urbanization: 75% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 0.1% (2010-15 est.)
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 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.
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 Josef Stalin and the German Nazi occupation, including mass executions of 800,000 Jews, Belarus was retaken by the Soviets in 1944.
It declared its sovereignty on July 27, 1990, and independence from the Soviet Union on August 25, 1991. It has been run by the authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka since 1994.
Since his election in July 1994, Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated power steadily in the executive branch through authoritarian means, destroying checks and balances and thereby dominating all branches of government. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) monitors have never determined that an election in Belarus meets OSCE standards for free and fair elections. Lukashenka 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.
OSCE/ODIHR observers reported that the March 19, 2006 presidential 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 and sentenced to a 5-year jail term. (The Belarusian authorities released Kazulin on August 16, 2008.) In January 2010, Lukashenka further consolidated his rule through local elections that failed to meet international standards.
The December 19, 2010 presidential elections were marked by cosmetic improvements during the campaign, such as limited access to state media and the legalization of limited campaign finance accounts. However, on election night, in reaction to a massive, peaceful protest held in downtown Minsk, the Government of Belarus launched an unprecedented (and still ongoing) crackdown. The crackdown resulted in hundreds of arrests and the imprisonment of seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates. One of the presidential candidates, Uladzimir Nyaklayeau, was brutally beaten before the polls closed on election night, then abducted by unknown individuals from his hospital bed.
Lukashenka declared himself the victor of the 2010 presidential election, claiming 80% of the vote. However, the vote count was declared by the OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring mission to have been “bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations.” Consequently, the United States Government does not recognize these results as legitimate. The United States considers the more than 50 persons imprisoned or suffering from restrictions on their freedom imposed by the Government of Belarus to be political prisoners. Eight of these individuals, including presidential candidates Mikola Statkevich and Andrei Sannikau, remain in prison. There are credible reports of mistreatment, including hindering access to legal counsel and relatives.
The constitution provides for a directly elected president who serves a 5-year term. The bicameral “parliament”, which was formed as a result of a flawed 1996 referendum and which the U.S. Government does not recognize, 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, whose heads are appointed by the president, 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.
Government Type: republic in name, although in fact a dictatorship
Capital: Minsk (population: 1.837 million - est. 2009)
Administrative Divisions: 6 provinces (voblastsi, singular - voblasts') and 1 municipality* (horad); Brest, Homyel' (Gomel), Horad Minsk* (Minsk City), Hrodna (Grodno), Mahilyow (Mogilev), Minsk, Vitsyebsk (Vitebsk) - note: administrative divisions have the same names as their administrative centers. Russian spelling provided for reference when different from Belarusian.
Independence Date: 25 August 1991 (from the Soviet Union)
Legal System: civil law system; note - nearly all major codes (civil, civil procedure, criminal, criminal procedure, family and labor) have been revised and came into force in 1999 or 2000. Belarus has not submitted an International court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction declaration and is a non-party state to the International criminal Court (ICCt).
The system of courts in Belarus is based on the territorial principle and specialization. The president alone appoints 6 of the 12 judges of the Constitutional Court and all the judges of the general jurisdiction and economic courts. The president appoints, with the consent of the Council of the Republic, the Chiefs of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Economic Court. With the consent of the Council of Republic, the president also appoints the General Prosecutor, the Chairman of the National Bank, and the Chairman of the Central Election Commission. The president alone appoints the head of the State Committee for Security (KGB).
International Environmental Agreements
Belarus is party to international agreements on: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulfur 85, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands.
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. Belarus faces growing air, land, and water pollution levels from potash mining in the south of the country. The most serious environmental issue in Belarus results from the April 26, 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
The massive nuclear accident at Chernobyl had a devastating effect on Belarus. About 70% of the nuclear fallout from the plant landed on Belarusian territory and about 20% of the land remains contaminated. 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.
The Government of Belarus’ plans to construct by 2017-2018 a 2.4-megawatt nuclear power plant near the border with Lithuania (approximately 50 km from its capital city Vilnius) triggered environment concerns in both countries. The Belarusian Government dismissed these concerns and in late 2011 signed a deal with the Russian Government for a $10 billion loan to construct a Russian-made nuclear power plant. As a Russian condition, a 50-50 joint venture was established to sell the nuclear power plant-generated electricity to domestic and foreign consumers.
Total Renewable Water Resources: 58 cu km (1997)
Freshwater Withdrawal: 2.79 cu km/yr (23% domestic, 47% industrial, 30% agricultural):
Per capita freshwater withdrawal: 286 cu m/yr (2000)
Agricultural products: grain, potatoes, vegetables, sugar beets, flax; beef, milk
Irrigated Land: 1,310 sq km (2008)
Natural Resources: timber, peat deposits, small quantities of oil and natural gas, granite, dolomitic limestone, marl, chalk, sand, gravel, clay
arable land: 26.77%
permanent crops: 0.6%
other: 72.63% (2005)
As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus had a relatively well-developed industrial base. Following the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Belarus retained this industrial base, which is now outdated, energy inefficient, and dependent on subsidized Russian energy and preferential access to Russian markets. The country also has a broad agricultural base that is equally inefficient and dependent on government subsidies, as well as a high education level. However, Belarus remains the only country in Europe with a higher education system that has not acceded to the Bologna Process promoting common European standards. The Government of Belarus has shown little interest in moving toward a free-market system given that the state- run economy provides a key element of social control.
After an initial burst of capitalist reform from 1991 to 1994, including privatization of state enterprises, creation of institutions of private property, and development of entrepreneurship, Belarus’ economic development 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. A few banks, which had been privatized after independence, were renationalized under Lukashenka, with state banks in 2011 accounting for 75% of the banking sector.
Potash, the country's most valuable mineral resource and a major hard currency earner, is sold as fertilizer. According to informal sources, Belarus accounts for more than 16% of world market’s potash supply. 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 small reserves of crude oil, though it imports most of its crude oil and natural gas from Russia at prices substantially below world market prices. 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, Poland, and the Netherlands, though the vast majority of industrial goods go to Russia, with energy exports flowing west.
Economic output, which had declined for several years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, revived in the mid-2000s thanks to the boom in oil prices. Belarus exported at market prices refined oil products that were produced from Russian crude oil purchased at a steep discount. The funds from this so-called “oil off-shore” allowed the Government of Belarus to enter into a so-called “social contract” with Belarusians: political passivity in return for a slowly increasing standard of living.
However, in late 2006, Russia began a process of rolling back its subsidies on oil and gas to Belarus. In December 2006, after a short-lived dispute, Belarus and Russia agreed on a schedule of graduated price increases toward European market prices for the gas Belarus would receive. Russian gas giant Gazprom also bought a 50% stake in Belarus’ pipeline firm Beltransgaz. Under this deal, although Gazprom raised prices for Belarus gas deliveries in 2010, the costs were still less than the price paid by EU member states. Tensions over Russian energy reached a peak in 2010, when Russia stopped the export of all subsidized oil to Belarus save for domestic needs. However, in December 2010, Russia and Belarus again reached a deal to restart the export of discounted oil to Belarus, although the terms were far less favorable than before and increased Belarusian energy dependence on Moscow. In November 2011, Belarus and Russia reached an agreement to drastically reduce the price of natural gas in exchange for Russia gaining full control over Beltransgaz, the natural gas pipeline operator.
Due to the economic and political climate, little new foreign investment has occurred in recent years. However, the government publicly claims to support foreign investment and has made various regulatory changes designed to attract investment. Belarus was ranked number 58 in the World Bank’s “Doing Business 2010” report and was among the top 10 “reformers” for 2008-2009. In 2011, a financial crisis was triggered by the Government of Belarus raising salaries by over 30% and far ahead of productivity in the run-up to December 2010 elections. This policy was compounded by an increased cost in Russian energy inputs and an overvalued Belarusian ruble and eventually led to a nearly three-fold devaluation of the Belarusian ruble in 2011 and 118.1% year-on-year inflation, leading to a concomitant drop in living standards. The present situation has stabilized in the short term due to a $3 billion, multi-tranche, 3-year loan from the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) Bail-out Fund; a $1 billion loan from the Russian state-owned bank Sberbank (terms and duration are not public); and the $2.5 billion sale of Beltranzgas to Russia state-owned Gazprom.
GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $141.2 billion (2011 est.)
GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $57.7 billion (2011 est.)
GDP- per capita (PPP): $14,900 (2011 est.)
GDP- composition by sector:
services: 44.7% (2011 est.)
Industries: metal-cutting machine tools, tractors, trucks, earthmovers, motorcycles, televisions, synthetic fibers, fertilizer, textiles, radios, refrigerators
Currency: Belarusian rubles (BYB/BYR)