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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: 267 - (27/03/03)
The huge demonstrations on February 15th against war with Iraq included one in Minsk. This was clearly with the approval of the authorities. Indeed, Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus must have authorised it in person.
There was another big difference between this demo and all the others. Instead of placards with pacifist slogans and the like, the Belarussian marchers held aloft giant photos of Saddam Hussein. This was a march for Saddam, explicitly and openly. If the marchers elsewhere had been accused of marching for Saddam they would have stoutly denied it. Not so in Minsk.
The regime in Belarus has seized on the Iraq crisis as a useful occasion to whip up public opinion in favour of a dictatorship, a foreign one parallel to the one they are living under. It is also keen to mobilise public sentiment against the US, the heartland of democracy. The people were marching for peace under dictatorial rule, for the stability of tyranny, which is their lot at home.
Not behind Lukashenko
The mobilisation of public opinion against the war in Iraq was, however, a dangerous move, as it turns out. For it put the idea of a march to protest against their own dictator into the heads of the restive elements of the population, which includes a lot of people.
On March 12th several thousand marched through Minsk demanding Lukashenko's resignation. "He must go," they chanted the day after he ordered law enforcement agencies to tighten monitoring of opposition activists. The demonstrators must have been hoping that there is safety in numbers. The very fact that the demo took place shows that Belarus is not Iraq, where something of the sort would have been inconceivable under Saddam.
One organiser, Dimitry Bondarenko, said: "We have two choices. Either we all leave the country or one man goes. That man is Lukashenko." A brave statement, for which he may pay the price, being a prominent figure.
Dictatorship - table d'hote Belarusse
Lukashenko has his own version of dictatorship, which can be called the Soviet Union in one country. The only MP in 1991 to vote against independence, he craves the stable, secure world of the Soviet Union. Belarus has many, if not all, the features of that promised land that scarcely delivered on its promises and so vanished.
There is a KGB of 150,000 still called by the same name; its operatives enjoy a special dispensation, indeed form a collectivity of new Old Believers, the latterday secular equivalent of the Russian Orthodox faithful, whom Peter the Great forced to shave their beards. In Lukashenko's case, as in Saddam's, it is rather a matter of sporting a moustache as a sign of machismo. Given its ideological roots, one can call it Marxismo.
The rest of the population are not so enthusiastically nostalgic for the good old days. They do not have the perks and privileges of the KGB elite. But in general they have been obliged to shut up, except when let out on a leash to march for Saddam. The March 12th demo may change all that, although so long as Lukashenko retains the support of the security apparatus, it is difficult to see what people can do.
The result is the last true dictatorship in Europe. Elections are rigged, Lukashenko being re-elected by an overwhelming 75% victory last time, a most unlikely outcome in a proper democracy such is contrariness of human nature even if peace and prosperity were the name of the game. So long as one is not a dissident or opponent of the regime one enjoys a sort of peace in Belarus, that of saturnine stoicism, of putting up with a bad job because of lack of any alternative. Belarussians cannot travel freely and, anyway, are not wanted abroad.
The economy is in a poor shape, with rampant double figure inflation and sluggish output. It is kept going by the support of Moscow, which is growing increasingly restive, however, at the regime's embarrassingly outmoded ways. Russia is the only country likely to take the shoddy Belarussian goods and is the prime supplier of energy at cheap rates. But it is never a good thing for a state to be wholly dependent on another for its survival. Putin tolerates Lukashenko as "a scoundrel, yes - but our scoundrel." Another Russian leader might not be so forbearing.
National Bank of Belarus cuts refinancing rate
Belarus is to reduce its refinancing rate by 1 per cent - to 37 per cent per annum - starting on 21st March to make adjustments for inflation, Belapan News Agency has quoted the National Bank of Belarus as saying.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Belarusian trade geared toward Russia
Belarus carried out foreign trade operations with 166 countries of the world last year, the press service of the Belarusian embassy in Moscow has reported. Belarusian goods were sold on the markets of 124 countries, while products were imported from 152 states, Belapan News Agency has reported.
Belarus's major trade partners in 2002 were Russia (57.9 per cent of the total volume of trade turnover) and Germany (6.1 per cent). The list of Belarus's most active trade partners includes Latvia, Ukraine, Great Britain, Poland, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Italy.
Exports to non-CIS states total 44.9 per cent of the overall volume. Exports to Russia stand at 50.1 per cent and to the CIS states - at 5 per cent. As for imports, Belarus buys most products from Russia, which accounts for 65 per cent of the overall volume.
Belarusian trade delegation visits Cuba
The fourth session of the Belarusian-Cuban joint commission on trade and economic cooperation took place in Havana. The Belarusian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Sychow, Belapan News Agency has reported.
Trade and economic cooperation between Belarus and Cuba and how to improve the legal basis of bilateral relations were discussed at the session, Andrey Savinykh, the deputy chief of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's information directorate told a briefing on 27th February. The commission focused on the performance of Bellatsintsukar, a Belarusian-Cuban joint venture processing raw sugar.
The Belarusian delegation met Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Angel Dalmau to discuss prospects for the development of Belarusian-Cuban relations. Preparations for Cuban Foreign Minister, Felipe [Ramon] Perez Roque's, visit to Belarus were also discussed, Savinykh said.
The Belarusian delegation also had a meeting with Cuban Minister of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation, Marta Lomas Morales and visited the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, where prospects for cooperation in the sphere of pharmaceuticals were discussed.
A Belarusian-Cuban agreement on cooperation in the area of certification was signed during the commission's session. Draft agreements on cooperation in health care, sport, publishing and information and also Belarusian companies' proposals on cooperation in agricultural machine-building, the production of medicines and Chernobyl rehabilitation programmes have been passed to the Cuban side for approval.
The next session of the commission will take place in May 2004 in Minsk.
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