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Рэспубліка Беларусь
Республика Беларусь
Republic of Belarus
Flag of Belarus Coat of Arms of Belarus
(Flag) (Coat of Arms)
Motto: none
Anthem: My Belarusy
Location of Belarus
Capital Minsk
53°55′ N 27°33′ E
Largest city Minsk
Official languages Belarusian, Russian
Government Federal Republic
Alexander Lukashenko
Sergey Sidorsky
 - Declared
 - Established
From the Soviet Union
July 27, 1990
August 25, 1991
 • Total
 • Water (%)
207,600 km² (93rd)
negligible (183 sq. km)¹
 • 2005 est.
 • 1999 census
 • Density
10,300,483 (65th)
49/km² (142nd)
 • Total
 • Per capita
2005 estimate
$70,524 million (65th)
$6,800 (108th)
Currency rouble² (BYR)
Time zone
 • Summer (DST)
Internet TLD .by
Calling code +375
2: Plans to introduce the Russian rouble

The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked nation-state in Eastern Europe, which borders Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. Its capital city is Minsk, and other important cities include Brest, Grodno (Hrodna), Gomel (Homyel') and Vitebsk.

Throughout much of history, the area which is now known as Belarus was part of various countries including Lithuania, Poland and the Russian Empire. Eventually, in 1922, Belarus became a republic in the Soviet Union as the Byelorussian SSR. The republic officially declared its independence on 27 August 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 1994, amidst allegations of human rights violations and autocracy, Alexander Lukashenko has been the nation's president. As a consequence, Belarus has been excluded from joining the Council of Europe. The country also continues to suffer from the effects of nuclear fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which took place in neighboring Ukraine. Culturally, Belarus has had problems in the past due to the Soviet plan of Russification and the gradual phasing out of the Belarusian language in favor of Russian.

Officially, the country is known as the Republic of Belarus (Belarusian: Рэспубліка Беларусь, Łacinka: Respublika Biełaruś; Russian: Республика Беларусь, Respublika Belarus), while the short name is Belarus (Беларусь, Biełaruś, Беларусь). The earlier name "Byelorussia" (Белоруссия) can still be found in use, although mainly in historical contexts. Some Belarusians consider the use of "Byelorussian" derogatory, as it brings back memories of Russification. The name has incorrectly been translated as "White Russia", a name that refers to a separate region.


History of the name

Historically, the country was referred to in English as "White Russia", although this is not exactly correct, the correct translation is "White Ruthenia"; the practice continues to this day in other languages. The first known use of "White Russia" to refer to Belarus was in the late 16th Century by European Jerome Horsey. He used the term to describe the areas of Ivan the Terrible's empire. During the 17th century the Russian tsars used "White Ruthenia", asserting that they were trying to recapture their heritage from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the Commonwealth broke up, the lands that now make up Belarus were officially referred to as "Belarus" and "Belarusi", instead of the then-banned terms of "Litwa" and "Licwiny."[1]

The spellings Belorussia and Byelorussia are transliterations of the name of the country in Russian. Belarus was named "Byelorussia" in the days of Imperial Russia, and the Russian tsar was usually styled "Emperor of All the Russias — Great, Minor, and White". This practice continued throughout the Soviet era, with the country taking the official name of the "Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic". Some Belarusians object to the name "Byelorussia", as it is an unwelcome reminder of the days under Russian and Soviet rule. In 2002, an informal survey was conducted by the website to see which version of the name was used on a majority of websites. By using Google, the website looked up various terms and it found that "Belarus", the official short form of the name, was used on 93% of websites checked. Different spellings of Byelorussia, such as "Belorussia" and "Bielorussia", came in second and third, respectively.[2] A number of languages today that still refer to Belarus as White Russia, such as "Weißrussland" in German, see wiktionary:Belarus for more.


Main article: History of Belarus
Map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, which eventually became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, which eventually became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Between the 6th and 8th centuries, what is now known as Belarus was settled by the Slavs, who still dominate the country. The Early East Slavs gradually came into contact with the Varangians and were organized under the state of Rus', mainly in the area around modern-day Polatsk in the northern part of the country. In the 13th century, the state was badly affected by a Mongol invasion, and eventually parts of Rus' and Samogitia were swallowed up by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The core lands of the duchy comprised the Belarusian territories that included the modern-day city of Navahradak as the first capital. During this time, the country was largely at peace. By the 15th century, the Grand Duchy stretched across much of Eastern Europe, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

On February 2, 1386, the recently-crowned King of Poland Grand Duke Yahaila, joined the Grand Duchy with Poland in a personal union under one monarch. This personal union eventually resulted in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a new state created in 1569. The union was transformed by the May Constitution of 1791, Europe's first modern codified national constitution, which abolished all state subdivisions and merged everything into the Kingdom of Poland. However, by 1795, the state was divided and annexed by Imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria in the course of the Partitions of Poland. Belarus remained part of the Russian Empire until being occupied by Germany during World War I. Belarus first declared independence on 25 March 1918, forming the Belarus National Republic. The Republic was, however, short-lived, and the regime was overthrown soon after the German withdrawal. In 1919 Belarus became the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), and merged into the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921, Byelorussian lands were split between Poland and the BSSR, which became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. In September 1939, the Soviet Union annexed the Polish-held Byelorussian land, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

In 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. Byelorussia was captured soon afterwards, and remained in Nazi hands until 1945. Much the country was destroyed and much of its population was killed in the German invasion. The Jewish population of Belarus was also devastated during the Holocaust. It took until 1971 for the population of Belarus to reach the pre-war level. The Jewish population, however, never recovered. [3] After the war ended, Byelorussia was among the 51 signatories to the founding of the United Nations, in 1945. The reconstruction that took place in Belarus after the war brought comparative prosperity to the Soviet Republic. During this time, Belarus became a major center of manufacturing in the western region of the USSR. The increase in jobs, brought in a huge immigrant population from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. [4] During Joseph Stalin's era, a policy of Russification was started to "protect" Byelorussia SSR from influences by the West. This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government. The official use of the Belarusian language and other cultural aspects were also limited by Moscow. After Stalin died in 1953, his successor Nikita Khrushchev continued the Russification program, stating in the Byelorussian SSR capital of Minsk that "The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism." [5]

In 1986, a section of Belarus was affected by the fallout from the Chernobyl power plant accident in neighboring Ukraine. When Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev began pushing through his Perestroika plan, the Belarusian people delivered a petition to him in December of 1986 explaining the loss of their culture. This event has been coined by historians as the "cultural Chernobyl." [6] In June of 1988, mass graves were discovered at the city of Kurapaty. The graves allegedly contained about 250,000 of Stalin's victims. Some contend that this discovery was proof that the Soviet government was trying to erase the Belarusian people and caused some to seek independence.[7] Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union on 27 July 1990, and the BSSR formally became the Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991. Around that time, Stanislav Shushkevich became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, the top leadership position in Belarus. Shushkevich, along with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine met on December 8, 1991 in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Since 1994, the country has been led by Alexander Lukashenko, who has been cited by Human Rights Watch for various violations of human rights and is generally regarded as a dictator by Western standards.


Victory Square, Minsk
Victory Square, Minsk
Belarusian President Lukashenko meeting Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko at a August 2005 CIS meeting.
Belarusian President Lukashenko meeting Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko at a August 2005 CIS meeting.

Main articles: Politics of Belarus, Foreign relations of Belarus.

Belarus is a republic, governed by a President and a bicameral parliament—the National Assembly—comprising a lower house, the 110 member House of Representatives, and an upper house, the 64 member Council of the Republic. The House of Representatives has the power to appoint the Prime Minister of Belarus, make constitutional amendments, call for a vote of confidence on the prime minister and make suggestions on the foreign and domestic policy of Belarus. The Council of the Republic has the power to select various government officials, conduct an impeachment trial of the president and the ability to accept or reject the bills passed from the House of Representatives. Each chamber has the ability to veto any law passed by local officials if it is contrary to the Constitution of Belarus. The President—since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko—is the head of state and heads the executive branch of the government, with the assistance of a cabinet of ministers, headed by a prime minister; the members of the cabinet need not be members of the legislature, and are appointed by the President. The judiciary comprises the Supreme Court and various specialized courts, such as the Constitutional Court, which deal with specific issued related to the constitution or business law. The judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Council of the Republic.

In Belarus, while there are political parties that either support or oppose President Lukashenko, the majority of the seats in the National Assembly are filled by those not affiliated with any political parties ("non-partisans"). However, there are three political parties who hold seats in the 110 member National Assembly: the Communist Party of Belarus (8 seats), the Agrarian Party of Belarus (3 seats), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus (1 seat). The other two parties that pledged their support to Lukashenko, the Belarusian Socialist Sporting Party and the Republican Party of Labour and Justice, did not secure any seats in October 2004 election. Opposition parties, such as the Belarusian People's Front and the United Civic Party of Belarus, were not allowed to run for election. Several organizations, including as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, declared the election un-free due to opposition parties being barred and the bias of the Belarusian media in favor of the government. [8]

Western media, politicians and political scientists have increasingly labeled Belarus under President Lukashenko's rule as Europe's last dictatorship. The Council of Europe has barred Belarus from membership since 1997 for undemocratic voting irregularities in the November 1996 constitutional referendum and parliament by-elections. According to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, Belarus's constitution is "illegal and does not respect minimum democratic standards and thus violates the principles of separation of powers and the rule of law". [9] The Belarusian government is also criticized for human rights violations and its actions against NGOs, independent journalists, national minorities and opposition politicians.[10] During the rule of the current administration in Belarus, there have been several cases of persecution, including the disappearance or death of prominent opposition leaders and independent journalists. Belarus is also one of just two nations in Europe that retains the death penalty for certain crimes.


Main article: Subdivisions of Belarus

Belarus is divided into six provinces ("voblasts"), named after the cities that serve as their administrative centers. The city of Minsk, located in the Minsk province, has the special status of being a national subordinate as it isn't included in any voblast. Subdivision into voblasts is inherited from the Soviet era. Voblasts are further subdivided into raions (commonly translated as "districts" or "regions"). Local legislative authorities (raisovet, "raion council") are elected by the raion's residents; local executive authorities (raion administration) are appointed by higher executive authorities. In the same way, each voblast has its own legislative authority (oblsovet), elected by residents, and an executive authority (voblast administration), whose leader is appointed by the President.

(Administrative centers are given in parentheses.)

  1. Minsk (capital)
  2. Brest Province (Brest)
  3. Homyel Province (Homyel')
  4. Hrodna Province (Hrodna)
  5. Mahilyow Province (Mahilyow)
  6. Minsk Province (Minsk)
  7. Vitsebsk Province (Vitsebsk)


Main article: Geography of Belarus
Swamps, forests and a lake in Belarus
Swamps, forests and a lake in Belarus

Belarus is landlocked, relatively flat, and contains large tracts of marshy land. Lakes and rivers punctuate the country. The largest marsh territory is Polesie, which is also amongst the largest marshes in Europe. There are 11,000 lakes in Belarus, but the majority of the lakes are smaller than 0.5 km². Three major rivers run through the country, the Neman River, the Pripyat River, and the Dnepr River. Belarus' highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (Dzyarzhynsk Hill), 345 m, and its lowest point is on the Neman River, 90 m. The climate ranges from harsh winters (average January temperatures are in the range −8 °C to −2 °C) to cool and moist summers (average temperature 15 °C to 20 °C).

Forest covers about 34 percent of the total landscape, making it one of the most dominant natural resources in Belarus. Other natural resources to be found in Belarus include peat deposits, small quantities of oil and natural gas, granite, dolomitic limestone, marl, chalk, sand, gravel, and clay. About one fifth of the territory, mostly in the South-Eastern provinces of Homyel and Mahilyow, continues to be affected by fallout from the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine. While the amount of radiation has decreased (by one percent) since the disaster, most of the area is considered uninhabitable. [11]


Obverse of the 500 Belarusian rouble (BYB/BYR), the national currency
Obverse of the 500 Belarusian rouble (BYB/BYR), the national currency
Main article: Economy of Belarus

Belarus's manufacturing industry produces trucks, motorcycles, agricultural and mining equipment, machine tools, chemicals, fertilizers; textiles and consumer goods. The chief trading partners are Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. The GDP is 70.5 billion USD, with a growth rate of 6.4 percent. Over 50 percent of the population work in the service industry, and 34.7 percent in the manufacturing sector. Currently, the workforce numbers 4.305 million, with an unemployment rate of only 2 percent. However, many Belarussians are underemployed, and about 27 percent of the population are either at or below the poverty line.

President Lukashenko launched the country on the path of "market socialism" in 1995. In keeping with this policy, he re-imposed administrative controls over prices and currency exchange rates and expanded the state's right to intervene in the management of private enterprise. In addition to the burdens imposed by high inflation rates, businesses have been subject to pressures from central and local governments, such as apparently arbitrary changes in regulations. Many profitable businesses that were privatized during early 1990s have now been nationalized, in what has been described as "creeping nationalization". [12]

Bad harvests in 1998 and 1999 and persistent trade deficits have strained the economy. Close economic relations with Russia remain important for Belarus economy. The notion of introducing a common currency between the two countries dates back to the formation of the Union of Russia and Belarus by both Yeltsin and Lukashenko in the 1990s. The scheduled introduction of the common currency, which was to be on January 1, 2006, has been delayed by the Russian government. The Russians blamed the delay on the Belarusian government's lack of preparation and the Belarusian demand for compensation for the costs of introducing the common currency.[13]

The Belarussian economy remains relatively isolated from the West. Belarus has made no request to join the European Union, but a trade office has been established in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. The office aims to bring Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova closer on policy issues such as trade and bilateral relations. However, Belarus does have indirect economic partnerships in Europe through the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community. Belarus has tried to increase the amount of foreign investments by offering tax breaks and relaxing various laws and regulations on corporations.[14] However, the Heritage Foundation has noted that international investors are cautious towards Belarus because of its political instability, government corruption and slow rate of privatization. [15]


Change in the population of Belarus (1992-2003)
Change in the population of Belarus (1992-2003)
Main article: Demographics of Belarus

The majority of the population of Belarus are native Belarusians, who comprise 81.2 percent of the total population of 10,300,483 people. Russians are the second largest group making up 11.4 percent of the population and the Poles and Ukrainians account for 3.9 and 2.4 percent of the population respectively. Languages commonly spoken in Belarus are Russian and Belarusian, which are both official languages of Belarus. The population density is about 50 persons per square kilometer and 71.7 percent of the total population lives in urban areas, 24 percent of those live in Minsk.[16] Most of the population, 69.5 percent, are between the ages of 14 and 64. Sixteen percent of the population is under 14 years with the rest of the population, 14.6 percent, being ages 65 or older. The median age of the population is 37. The literacy rate in Belarus, which is the number of people aged 15 and older who can read and write, is at 99 percent, with men at 99.8%, and women at 99.3%. The male-to-female ratio in 2005 was estimated to be .88 males to every female. The average life expectancy for Belarusian citizens is 68.72 years; for males it is 63.03 years and for females it is 74.96 years.

Most demographic indicators for Belarus resemble other European countries, notably with both the population growth rate and the natural growth rate in the negative. The population growth is currently at −0.09% in 2005, with a fertility rate of 1.39. The population is also growing older, and by the year 2050, the majority of the population will be over the age of 50.[17] The migration rate is roughly +2 for every 1 000 people in Belarus. Eighty percent of the population belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, while other religions, such as Islam, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, and Judaism, make up the other 20 percent. Prior to World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in what is today Belarus, and comprised more than 50 percent of the population in cities and towns. By 1989, Jews accounted for only 1.1% of the population, mainly due to the Holocaust WWII and emigration from the Soviet Union to nations such as the United States and Israel. [18]


Children in traditional dress
Children in traditional dress
Russian Orthodox church in Brest, Belarus
Russian Orthodox church in Brest, Belarus
Main article: Culture of Belarus

Traditional Belarusian dress originated from the time of Kievian Rus, and continues to be worn today at special functions. Because of the cool climate of Belarus, the clothing was made out fabrics that provide closed covering and warmth. The outfits were designed with either many threads of different colors woven together or are adorned with symbols called ornaments. The Belarusian nobles usually had their fabrics imported and chose the colors of red, blue or green. Males wore a shirt and trousers adorned with a belt and females wore a longer shirt, a wrap-around skirt called a "paniova", and a headscarf. The outfits also were influenced by the dress worn by Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and other European nations and have changed over time because of improvements in the techniques used to make clothing. [19] Belarus has four World Heritage Sites, two of them shared between Belarus and its neighbors. The four are: the Mir Castle Complex; the Niasvizh Castle; the Belovezhskaya Pushcha (shared with Poland); and the Struve Geodetic Arc (shared with Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Moldova, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine). [20]

The typical Belarusian diet includes bread, potatoes, cabbage and pork. Belarusians tend to eat small portions of food in the morning and hearty meals for lunch and dinner. Some of the most widely served dishes include "kotleta po krestyansky", a mix of chopped pork served in a mushroom sauce; a soup by the name of "shtchi", which includes sauerkraut, potatoes and fried onions; and "kalachi", a loaf of bread that has been formed into the shape of a padlock. When guests enter Belarus from a foreign country, they are usually served rye bread with a pinch of salt on the side and it is presented to them on a traditional cloth, called a "rushnik".

Belarusian theater began to gain popularity in the early 1900s. One of Belarus's most famous plays, Paulinka (written by Yanka Koupala), was first performed in Siberia for the Belarussians who were being be sent to the region. The plays were performed at local "clubs" not only across Siberia, but also in neihgboring Ukraine. This took place during the "re-birth" of the Belarusian culture after many years of decline. In the 17th century, Partesnoe penie, part singing, became common for choruses, followed by private theaters established in cities like Minsk and Vitebsk. [21] Documentation of Belarusian folk music stretches back to at least the 15th century. Prior to that, skomorokhs were the major profession for musicians. A neumatic chant, called znamenny, from the word 'znamia' (sign or neume), was used until the 16th century in Orthodox church music. This was followed as many as two hundred variations of the style, mostly influences by the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. Popular music groups that came from Belarus include Pesniary, Dreamlin and NRM. Currently, there are 27 professional theater groups touring in Belarus, 70 orchestras, and 15 agencies that focus on promoting concerts.

The Belarusian government sponsors many annual cultural festivals: "Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk"; "Minsk Spring"; "Slavonic Theatrical Meetings"; International Jazz Festival; National Harvesting Festival; "Arts for Children and Youth"; the Competition of Youth Variety Show Arts; "Muses of Niesvizh"; "Mir Castle"; and the National Festival of the Belarusian Song and Poetry. These events showcase talented Belarusian performers, whether it is in music, art, poetry, dance or theater. At these festivals, various prizes named after Soviet and Belarusian heroes are awarded for excellence in music or art. Several state holidays, like Independence Day or Victory Day draw big crowds and include various displays such as fireworks and military parades. Most of the festivals take place in Vitebsk or Minsk.[22]

From the 1952 Helsinki Games until the end of the Soviet era, Belarus competed in the Olympic Games as part of the Soviet Olympic squad. During the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Belarus competed as part of the Unified Team. The nation's athletes competed in an Olympic Games as Belarusians for the first time during the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Belarus has won a total of 52 medals; 6 gold, 17 silver and 29 bronze. The first Olympic medal for the Soviet Union was won by Belarusian Mikhail Krivonosov at the 1956 Summer Games held in Melbourne, Australia.[23] Belarus's National Olympic Committee has been headed by President Lukashenko since 1997; he is the only head of state in the world to hold this position.[24]

Certain aspects of the Belarusian culture have been lost over time because of the Russification period. While poets such as Koupala were trying to revive the use of the Belarusian language, the Russian language is still used in official business and in various parts of Belarusian society. Other symbols of culture that faced Russification were the symbols of Belarus in 1991 and the Belarus National Republic, the white-red-white flag (бел-чырвона-белы сцяг) and the Pahonya coat of arms. While the coat of arms is similar to that of Lithuania (Vytis), these were replaced by the current symbols in a 1995 referendum, which may be considered reminiscent of the Soviet era. President Lukashenko has introduced laws that force radio and television stations to showcase a percentage of Belarusian talent daily, but it does not state that the performance has to be in the Belarusian or Russian language.

Related topics

Topics in Belarus
History Grand Duchy of Lithuania | Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth | Belarus National Republic | Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic | Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic
Geography Regions | Biosphere Reserves | Cities
Government Constitution | Foreign relations | Military
Politics Political parties | Elections
Economy Agriculture | Communications | Transport
Culture Belarusian language | Public holidays | Media | Music | Famous Belarusians | Artists | Olympic History | Kalvaryja
Other Awards and decorations of Belarus | Human rights

International rankings

Every year, several non-governmental groups and international organizations release ratings that compare various nations to each other on issues of government corruption, freedom in the press, economic activity and women's rights. This is a sampling of the various groups with their report, along with the results of how Belarus is ranked.


  1. ^  Why White Russia?
  2. ^  The 21 Names of Belarus
  3. ^  Country Studies - Belarus - Stalin and Russification
  4. ^  iExplore - Belarus History and Culture
  5. ^  Country Studies - Belarus - Stalin and Russification
  6. ^  Country Studies - Belarus - Perestroika
  7. ^  Belarus Backgrounder Country Studies - Belarus - Perestroika
  8. ^  OSCE Report on the October 2004 parliamentary elections December 2004
  9. ^  Belarus suspended from the Council of Euopre January 17, 1997
  10. ^  Human Rights Watch
  11. ^  BBC News - Belarus cursed by Chernobyl April 26, 2005
  12. ^  CIA World Factbook (2005) - Belarus - Economy
  13. ^  Mosnews - Belarus Once Again Delays Introduction of Russian rouble
  14. ^ - Belarus Intends to Attract USD 1.5 Billion in Foreign Investment in 2003
  15. ^  Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom - Belarus
  16. ^  CIA World Factbook (2005) - Belarus - People
  17. ^  US Census Bureau Populatiom Pyramid - Belarus
  18. ^  Country Studies - Belarus by the Library of Congress
  19. ^  Belarusian traditional clothing
  20. ^  UNESCO list of Belarusian World Heritage Sites
  21. ^
  22. ^  Belarusian festivals
  23. ^  Belarus Embassy in the United States - Olympic movement in Belarus
  24. ^  NOC RB English homepage

External links

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