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Belarus or Byelarus

Belarus or Byelarus (both: byĕ'lərs`), formerly Belorussia, officially Republic of Belarus, republic (2005 pop. 9,799,000), c.80,150 sq mi (207,600 sq km), East central Europe. It is sometimes called White Russia. Belarus borders on Poland in the west, on Lithuania and Latvia in the north, on Russia in the east, and on Ukraine in the south.

Minsk Minsk (mĭnsk, Rus. mēnsk), city (1990 est. pop. 1,610,000), capital of Belarus and of the Minsk region, on a tributary of the Berezina. It is a railroad junction with machine, machine-tool, tractor, automobile, textile, and food-processing factories: is the capital and largest city.

Land and People
Much of Belarus is a hilly lowland, drained by the Dnieper, Western Dvina, and Neman rivers. The climate is moderate humid continental, with warm summers and cold winters. More than one third of the land is covered with peat and other swampy soils, notably in the Pripyat Marshes in the south.

In addition to the capital, other important cities are Gomel (in Belarusian, Homyel), Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk), Mogilev (Mahilyow), Bobruysk (Babruysk), Grodno (Horodna), and Brest.

About 80% of the population are Belarusians; Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Jews are the republic's largest minorities. Since the break-up the USSR, Belarus has experienced a slow decline in population. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are the main religions. Religious groups that have won converts more recently have suffered official discouragement and persecution since independence, a policy that was enacted into law in 2002. Both Belarusian and Russian are official languages, but Russian is more widely used.


Since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus has moved slowly on privatization and other market reforms, emphasizing instead close economic relations with Russia. About 80% of all industry remains in state hands, and foreign investment has been hindered by a climate hostile to business. The banks, which had been privatized after independence, were renationalized under Lukashenko. Economic output, which declined for several years, revived somewhat in the late 1990s, but the economy remains dependent on Russian subsidies.

Peat, the country's most valuable mineral resource, is used for fuel and fertilizer and in the chemical industry. 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 only small reserves of petroleum and natural gas and imports most of its oil and gas from Russia. The main branches of industry produce tractors and trucks, earth movers 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, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany.

The massive nuclear accident (Apr. 26, 1986) at the Chernobyl Chernobyl (chĭrnō`byēl), Ukr. Chornobyl, abandoned city, N Ukraine, near the Belarus border, on the Pripyat R. Ten miles (16 km) to the north, in the town of Pripyat, is the Chernobyl nuclear power station, site of the worst nuclear reactor disaster in history. This power plant, across the border in Ukraine, had a devastating effect on Belarus; as a result of the radiation release, agriculture in a large part of the country was destroyed, and many villages were abandoned. Resettlement and medical costs were huge and long-term.

Belarus is governed under the constitution of 1994 as amended in 1996. It has a popularly elected president who serves a five-year term. The bicameral parliament consists of the 64-seat Council of the Republic and the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives. The president appoints the prime minister, who is the head of government. Administratively, the country is divided into six districts or oblasts and one municipality.


Early History through the Soviet Era

The region now constituting Belarus was colonized by East Slavic tribes from the 5th to the 8th cent. It fell (9th cent.) under the sway of Kievan Rus Kievan Rus (kē`ĕfən), medieval state of the Eastern Slavs. It was the earliest predecessor of modern Ukraine and Russia. Flourishing from the 10th to the 13th cent and was later (12th cent.) subdivided into several Belarusian principalities forming part of the Kievan state. Kiev's destruction by the Mongols in the 13th cent. facilitated the conquest (early 14th cent.) of Belarus by the dukes of Lithuania. The region became part of the grand duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 was merged with Poland. The large Jewish population (later decimated by the Germans during World War II) settled in Belarus in the 14th cent. The region flourished under Lithuanian rule; but after the Polish-Lithuanian union Belarus lost its relative importance, and its ruling classes became thoroughly Polonized.

Through the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, all Belarus passed to the Russian Empire. It suffered greatly during the wars (16th–18th cent.) between Poland and Russia and in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 (during which it was laid waste by retreating Russian forces). Great poverty under Russian rule, notably among the Jews, led to mass emigration to the United States in the 19th cent. A battlefield in World War I and in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919–20, Belarus experienced great devastation.

In Mar., 1918, the Belarusian National Rada in Minsk proclaimed the region an independent republic; but in Jan., 1919, the Soviet government proclaimed a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic at Smolensk, and soon the Red Army occupied all of Belarus. In 1921, the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Soviet-Polish War, awarded W Belarus to Poland. The eastern and larger part formed the Belorussian SSR when the USSR was formally established in 1922. In Sept., 1939, the Soviet army overran W Belarus and incorporated it into the Belorussian SSR. Occupied by the Germans during World War II, Belorussia was one of the most devastated areas of the USSR. In 1945 its western border was adjusted slightly in favour of Poland, but the 1939 frontier remained essentially unchanged. The republic has had a separate seat in the United Nations since 1945.

Post-Soviet Belarus
The Republic of Belarus declared its independence from the USSR on Aug. 25, 1991. The reform-minded Stanislav Shushkevich became head of state and, along with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus was one of the original signatories to the treaty establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), community of independent nations established by a treaty signed at Minsk, Belarus, on Dec. 8, 1991, by the heads of state of Russia , Belarus , and Ukraine . Between Dec. 8 and Dec. 21, the three original signatories were joined by Armenia , Azerbaijan (its parliament, however, rejected ratifying its membership until 1993), Kazakhstan , Kyrgyzstan , Moldova , Tajikistan , Turkmenistan , and Uzbekistan .

In early 1994 former Communists in the parliament voted to replace Shushkevich with Mechislav Grib, a former national police official; Aleksandr Lukashenko Lukashenko, Aleksandr Grigoryevich, Belarusian, Alyaksandr Hrgorevich Lukashenka, 1954–, Belarusian politician, president of Belarus (1994–), b. Kopys. A graduate of the Mogilev Teaching Institute (1975) and Belorussian Agricultural Academy (1985), he managed (1982–90) Soviet state and collective farms and a factory before his election (1990) to the parliament of the Belorussian SSR was elected to the post in July, 1994. Parliamentary elections were held during 1995, and most seats were filled by former Communists.

In 1996, Russia and Belarus signed an agreement to form a "union state" that, without completely merging the two governments, would strengthen economic, cultural, and political ties. Additional treaties signed in 1997, 1998, and 1999 included the development of common customs and taxation, a single currency, a joint defence policy, and other items designed to integrate the two nations, but progress toward real integration is expected to be slow, as Russia as insisted on gradual implementation of the union. In Sept., 2003, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine signed an agreement to create a common economic space.

A referendum held in 1996 increased Lukashenko's power at the expense of parliament and extended his presidential term by two years (to 2001). A new parliament subsequently was formed from handpicked members of the old. Lukashenko's government has been criticized for human-rights abuses, including being responsible for the disappearance of its political opponents. Parliamentary elections held in 2000, which were boycotted by the small democratic opposition, preserved Lukashenko's hold on power. Lukashenko himself was re-elected in 2001, in a contest that most observers regarded as neither free nor fair. A referendum in 2004 removed the two-term limit on the presidency, but independent observers and polls indicated that the results were fraudulent. Elections for parliament, in which no opposition candidate won a seat, were held at the same time and were similarly flawed.


Lukashenko set for victory, opposition rallies

Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko looked set for election victory on Sunday, but liberal opponents defied his warnings and thronged central Minsk, denouncing the poll as rigged.

Lukashenko, accused by the West of crushing human rights and falsifying elections during 12 years in power, says his rivals are Western-funded troublemakers. In the campaign's final days, he vowed to "wring the necks" of anyone violating public order. In one of the largest opposition rallies in Belarus in recent years, at least 10,0000 demonstrators defied official warnings to stay away and converged on central October Square after polls closed. Police at the scene were not impeding the demonstrators, who were waving dozens of European Union and blue opposition flags and the white and red national colours banned by Lukashenko. But witnesses said riot police were massing in adjacent streets.

Braving freezing temperatures and snow, many brought flowers in a sign that their protest was peaceful. "I came here because it is our last chance to change something in this country," said Yevgeniy, 19, student. Following mass upheavals that brought pro-Western leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine, Lukashenko has taken no chances, securing passage of tough legislation against illegal assembly.

Election officials said turnout of the just over seven million voters stood at about 90 percent by 4 p.m. British time. Preliminary results are expected by midnight. Long before voting ended, two pro-government institutes had issued "exit polls" showing Lukashenko capturing more than 80 percent to about four percent for his main rival.

Measured comments
Main opposition hopeful Alexander Milinkevich denounced the election as fraudulent. "The results will be unrealistic and falsified," Milinkevich told reporters. "We will not recognise them and nor will democratic countries. This is already clear."

Lukashenko, known as "batka" or father, tells Belarussians he has offered stability and remains popular among elderly and rural voters.

The president was decidedly more measured on voting day than in the run-up to the poll. "We will react appropriately to things depending on the circumstances," a beaming Lukashenko said at his polling station. "The campaign is proceeding in a calm, ordinary fashion as in previous years." But he hit back at longstanding U.S. allegations that Belarus was the "last dictatorship in Europe", denouncing President George W. Bush as "terrorist no. 1 on the planet".

Both the European Union and the United States vow to boost sanctions against Belarus if hundreds of independent observers now in Belarus -- many from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- say the vote is unfair. Despite Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin's distaste for the president, Russia will almost certainly give quiet approval to the poll as Belarus is its only ally on its western borders.

A second opposition hopeful, Alexander Kozulin, urged supporters to keep their cool at mass gatherings. "Do not give the authorities cause to shed blood today and use force against peaceful citizens," he said in a statement. The fourth candidate is an ally of the president. Lukashenko dismissed any criticism of the poll's conduct. "The Belarussian people are masters in their own country," he said.

Law enforcement bodies, backed by state television, accused the president's opponents in the final days of campaigning of using the poll as a screen to seize power. Residents have been warned to stay off the streets for fear of violence.