Principal ethnic groups
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: 271 - (24/07/03)
Vasil Bykov, the symbol of the nation, dies
Belarus is torn between its own nationhood and its especial relationship to Russia. In no other FSU republic is Russia's presence so strong. The regime of President Alexander Lukashenka actually wants to merge the country with its giant neighbour again in the Union of Russia and Belarus, supposed to be completed in 2008, still sufficient time way for it to be shelved.
The country's greatest novelist, Vasil Bykov, died on June 22nd in Minsk at the age of 79. Called by some the Sahkarov of Belarussian literature, he drew as many as 50,000 people to the capital's streets for his funeral procession on June 25th.
Napoleonic and Hitlerite overtones
The symbolism of this event could hardly have been more poignant. He died on the very day that Napoleon invaded Tsarist Russia in 1812 and Hitler the Soviet Union in 1941, of both of which Belarus was a part and right there in the front line.
In the case of the Nazis, Belarus underwent a terrible affliction even worse than that imposed on the rest of the European USSR. It lost one quarter of its population of ten million and took decades to recover its population size and comparative prosperity as the richest republic of the Soviet Union.
Bykov's fiction reflected this experience closely, portraying the brutal reality of soldiers' lives in the world war. A soldier himself, he wrote about war in a manner devoid of the standard Soviet romance. He showed what drove some to desert and why not all resistance fighters were heroes.
His most famous book was 'The dead do not feel pain,' which caused the most problems with the Soviet authorities. It was heavily edited by censors when it was first published in the mid-1970s. It was eventually published in full when the literary journal, Novy Mir, and its editor Alexander Tvardovsky, took up his case.
But this was in Russian translation. These have been the source from which foreign translations have been made. His is a voice that has only come to the West at one remove via Moscow. Such, indeed, is true of the voice of the Belarussian people as a whole.
Lukashenka would wish that to be permanently the case. He expressed sentiments of regard and regret for his passing on Bykov's death. Bykov was a 'great patriot' and irreplaceable' in its culture. But in fact he had persecuted him for years, forcing him to flee the country. Bykov lived his last years in exile, only returning to Minsk when it was clear that his stomach cancer would kill him.
As Rygor Borodulin, a writer and friend of Bykov's since 1950, said: "Bykov was to dictators like red flags are to bulls. He hated them. They pressured him. There were many nasty reports on television and constant phone calls."
It is easy to see why he is a hero to the younger generation. Earlier this year, students took to the street in tens of thousands, demanding that Lukashenka should go. The demos were broken up by the police. The funeral procession of Bykov offered them a change to reassemble in a peaceful fashion under the eyes of the authorities. Bykov, the latter can reflect with satisfaction, is dead. But the spirit of Bykov is not; it lives on among the young.
Belarus, Russia to set up joint arms export company
Belarusian and Russian defence officials at a meeting in Moscow on 26th and 27th June agreed to set up a joint arms export company, Russian media outlets have reported. Gen Pyotr Rahazhewski, deputy defence minister for armaments, led the Belarusian delegation to the talks, Belpan News Agency has reported.
The joint company is expected to comprise Russia's Rosoboroneksport arms trading company; Sukhoi, an aircraft maker; Almaz-Antey, an air defence equipment giant; and the Moscow scientific research institute of instrument-making; and Belarus's Pelenh, an optical instrument maker; Ahat, a manufacturer of air defence computer control systems, and Beltekhekspart, an arms trading company.
The officials also agreed to set up a centre involving enterprises of the Belarusian-Russian financial and industrial group Oboronitelnyye Sistemy [Defence Systems] for repairing, maintaining and modernizing air defence weapons and equipment.
Introduction of Russian rouble in Belarus delayed
A technical delay has arisen in the introduction of Russian roubles in non-cash settlements in Belarus, due on 1st July.
A spokesman for the National Bank of Belarus told ITAR-TASS News Agency on 1st July that the measure required a respective decree of the Belarusian president, but the document has not been signed as yet.
Syarhey Dubkow, a senior official of the National Bank, said "at the present time, the draft decree is undergoing the procedure of interdepartmental review in the Republic of Belarus." "This is a purely technical work," Dubkow said.
Specialists see the parallel circulation of non-cash Belarusian and Russian roubles as a major step towards a single currency of the Russia-Belarus union state.
The next move, planned for 1st January of next year, is the pegging of the Belarusian rouble's rate to the Russian rouble.
The Russian rouble is to be used in Belarus as the sole tender from 1st January 2005.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka said in an interview with the national television on 30th June that the adoption of the single currency in the Russian-Belarus union absolutely does not contradict "our notion of sovereignty and does not lead to its loss."
Belarusian president signs licensing decree
On 14th July, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed decree No 17 "On licensing." According to the presidential press service, the document reduces the number of licensed lines of business from 165 to 49. The decree stipulates that the list of business activities to be licensed shall not be expanded by a decision of state agencies unless the authority to do so is explicitly granted by the decree, Belapan News Agency has reported.
The document sets forth a list of licensed activities, procedures for the issuance of licences and the state agencies which will be empowered to award licences.
According to the presidential press service, the decree is aimed at protecting the interests of all Belarusian citizens, particularly consumers, and those of the state. It is based on the premise that only activities posing a threat to the life and health of Belarusian citizens, the security of the state, its economic interests and the environment shall be subject to licensing. Consequently, the quantity of licensed lines of business has been reduced threefold and the number of state agencies empowered to issue licenses has been halved.
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