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  BELARUS

REPUBLICAN REFERENCE

Area (sq.km)
207,595

Population
10,350,194

Principal ethnic groups
Belarusians 77.9%
Russians 13.2%
Poles 4%

Capital
Minsk

Currency
Rubel
(Belarusian Rouble)

President
Alexander Lukashenka

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Background:
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 but, to date, neither side has actively sought to implement the accord. 

Update No: 255

President Alexander Lukashenka must be watching the Hague trial of Milosevic with amazement. How could the former Yugoslav president have committed such an elementary blunder as to have thought himself genuinely popular. He faced an election himself last September and duly won, taking no chances. 
Lukashenka runs the last indisputable dictatorship in Europe. The legitimacy of the regime is based on instilling fear and on the KGB (still with its old name), which has 150,000 operatives, hand-picked for their ruthlessness and rewarded with high wages and many a perk. 
The regime has a death squad, which has been responsible for the removal of up to 30 opposition figures. This came to light at the time of the election. Two former state prosecutors fled to the US, where after a long debriefing the State Department accredited their story. The opposition leader, Viktor Gonchar, and former interior minister, Yury Zakharenko, are amongst those who have disappeared and are presumed dead. 
Lukashenka's dream is of a union with Russia. In formal terms this already exists, with a council and bureaucracy to book. But nobody in government in the Kremlin takes it very seriously. They have no desire to take on responsibility for the basket-case of a Belarusian economy. 
It is the security and armed forces and others in the Duma nostalgic for the USSR who like the idea. For Belarus is the only FSU state outside Central Asia which has clung to Soviet ideas. Not for nothing was Lukashenka the one MP in 1991 to vote against independence. He is delighted to host the Commonwealth of Independent States in Minsk, its headquarters. 
A series of unusual incidents indicate a few cracks in the smooth surface of the regime. In mid-January the chairman of the newly created upper house of parliament, Alexander Vaitowich, voiced a criticism of Lukashenka remarkable for its bluntness. The president, he said, was overfond of the rule by decree. Decrees drawn up by a narrow elite of experts can take the public by surprise. 
Mr Vaitovich then two weeks later had the temerity to criticise the country's foreign policy, in particular a decision to refuse a visa to Hans-Georg Wieck, a retired German diplomat who as head of an international human rights mission in Minsk has been one of the regime's tireless critics. 
A senior member of the lower house of parliament, Vasil Khrol, has blamed the president for breaking his election promise to liberalise the economy: "We have wasted four months already. If this stagnation continues, history will never forgive us." Guarded words. But to say things like these two in a dictatorship is a brave thing to do. On January 29th the chairman of the securities outfit, Valentin Shukhno, complained of the backwardness of the state-controlled financial exchange. 
Lukashenka has taken to locking up industrialists accused of fraud. This has not improved Belarus' image abroad, as the foreign minister admitted on a recent trip to Libya, one of the regime's few friends. 
The US and the EU criticised the election at the time as fraudulent, but know that severing all ties would just play into Lukashenka's hands. They keep up a dialogue, hoping that at some point he might delude himself that he is popular and relax his grip. But this is not very likely. Bleak times ahead for Belarus.

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FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS

Belarus, Georgia sign transport agreement


Belarus and Georgia have signed an agreement on international transport communications. According to Belarusian Minister of Transport Mikhail Baravy, Belarus is interested in access to the Black Sea ports. For its part, Georgia is also interested in a transport corridor via Belarus to Europe, Belarusian Television has reported.
Belarusian Minister of Transport and Communications Mikhail Baravy, in Russian Georgia has created a fairly good transport infrastructure. Huge amounts have been invested into the construction of ports, which allows us delivery of goods from Europe to the port of Poti and further to the port of Baku. This opens up opportunities for other states' transport markets, to Afghanistan, Iran, China, Turkey, and so on.
For its part, Belarus also interests Georgian transport companies as a transit country. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, Giorgi Nizharadze, said: "We are talking in fact about bringing together all the transport corridors that currently operate independently. For us, it is the Trans- European-Caucasus-Asian transport corridor and the North-South direction where Belarus operates."

Belarusian, Chinese officials discuss steps to boost trade

There are no problems in relations between Belarus and China, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said during his visit to Belarus. This is the Chinese official's first visit to Minsk. The main item on the visit's agenda was consultations between the two countries' Foreign Ministries Belarusian Television has reported. 
The two countries marked the 10th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. Its significance goes beyond the impressive package of 50 treaties and agreements. Belarus values its common positions with China on international problems, the support it enjoys in international organizations and the progress in solving economic problems. 
All this was mentioned by Li Zhaoxing and Belarusian First Deputy Foreign minister, Vasil Puhachow. The latest consultations between the foreign ministries were held three years ago. The purpose of the current consultations is to coordinate activities in accordance with the priorities set last year by the leaders of China and Belarus.
Li Zhaoxing said: "There are no insoluble problems in our bilateral relations. Certainly, we give priority to economic ties over everything else. We have the potential for it. Besides, we are ready to support Belarus on the road to the World Trade Organisation, which the People's Republic of China joined on 1st January. 
"We have projects of mutual interest. For Belarus, this is the assembly of Belaz and Maz [lorries] in China. For China - the fact that Minsk motorcycles are assembled from Chinese parts."
Puhachow replied: "We think that by implementing large-scale projects involving both sides' capital, financial and other resources, we can bring bilateral trade turnover to US$ 0.5bn. 
"The majority of agreements reached at the highest level are being successfully implemented. Our success in the development of bilateral trade and economic relations is less visible. In my opinion, this has to do with the peculiarities of Chinese and Belarusian businesses' approach to cooperation."

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