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: 274 - (27/10/03)
The Belarussian republic is the most benighted in Europe. It is not the poorest. That dubious distinction rests with Moldova nearby.
Et in Arcadia ego
In former times Belarus was the richest of the Soviet republics, based on a thriving agriculture and animal husbandry. It supplied 25% of the USSR's beef production, for instance. It approximated to the ideal of a land of combine harvesters threshing wheat and beefy cattle roaming lush pastures in state and collective farms - the very image of Soviet propaganda.
The managing director of one of those collective farms in the early 1990s was a certain debonair fellow, Alexander Lukashenka. He was young, handsome and athletic, a great favourite with the local girls and an admired sports star with the men. His popularity was high and times were good, at least for the likes of him.
Two events came to disrupt this pastoral idyll. In March 1986 the world's worst nuclear accident took place at Chernobyl. The luck of Belarus had turned. For by an evil chance it was downwind of the radioactive cloud that spewed out of the overheating reactors.
Much of the countryside in the south around Gomel became radioactivised. Agriculture and animal husbandry were devastated. Belarus suffered far worse than Ukraine itself from the disaster.
Cancers mounted and infants began to be born with abnormalities; both of which afflictions are still common. The costs of coping with the aftermath of the catastrophe rose to 3-4% of GDP, a conservative estimate since the lowering impact on morale and general performance is difficult to compute.
Then came a setback of a very different kind, the dissolution in 1991 of the Soviet Union itself. Lukashenka, by now an MP, was the only member of parliament to vote against independence. For everyone else was at first optimistic. President Shushkevic, the son of a renowned poet in Belarussian, was a revered figure committed to the cause of national regeneration of White Russia independent of Russia.
But everything went wildly wrong. The Soviet economy had been highly integrated with those of other republics, exchanging its agricultural goods for consumer goods from elsewhere in the USSR. Commercial ties were rudely disrupted and GDP plummeted.
In 1994 the people voted in as president the one man, Lukashenka, who had predicted disaster, from the break-up of the Soviet Union, which had been engineered by a new treaty, in a meeting held in Belarus itself in late 1991. Shushkevich had been one of the signatories, along with Yeltsin and Kravchuk of Ukraine. The 'guilty men' while Lukashenka had been vindicated.
The Lukashenka regime
Lukashenka's appeal was based on sheer nostalgia for the good old days., which he promised to restore. Easier said than done,.
He could, and did, restore the power of the secret police and the KGB, still called such. They number 150,000 in a nation of 11 million and are right behind their ultimate boss, who accords them special perks and perquisites. Soviet-style repression of opposition has been re-instated. The command-administrative economy remains largely in place, even if a measure of free enterprise, as in the New Economic Policy period (1921-28), initiated by Lenin, is permitted.
But this is the easy part. To restore Soviet-era prosperity is far harder, indeed impossible. The economic decline, if anything, accelerated under Lukashenka, as the old expedient of printing money was applied, leading to inevitable shortages and inflation. The economy is doing somewhat better since its abandonment several years ago. But even on official figures, not to be trusted, the growth of GDP is lower than anywhere else in the FSU outside Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Lukashenka still blames everything on the fatal events of 1991. He advocated the re-union of Belarus and Russia from the outset. Yeltsin and now Putin have gone along with the idea to humour him and it is set for 2008. But somehow the smart reformers in Moscow are almost certain to jettison or water down the project. They hardly want Russia to take over the basket case of the Belarus economy. Indeed Putin is far less enamoured of the idea than Yeltsin was . As he has said; " those who are not nostalgic for the Soviet Union have no heart; those who think it can be brought back have no head." Lukashenka, with his flowing moustaches and sleek locks, his burly physique and athletic prowess, cuts a fine figure of a man. But the brawn is not matched by brain.
Lukashenka postponed the next presidential election due in 1998, but then won it in October 2001 on a 75% victory margin. No doubt there was some massaging of the polls, but he remains genuinely popular for his folksy life-style in the rural hinterland.
He has recently made clear his intention to change the constitution to allow him to run for re-election. The Belarus population is likely to have him on their backs for a long time yet.
Belarus harvests 5.5m t of grain this year
Belarus has done the harvesting well despite difficult weather conditions, Belarusian President Alyaksander Lukashenka told the nationwide agricultural fair Dazhynki-2003, ITAR-TASS News Agency has reported. In Lukashenka's words, 5.5m tonnes of grain were harvested this year with the average grain yield of 27 q/ha. Belarus has had the biggest ever harvest of 700,000 tonnes of wheat, which Belarus used to import not long ago, Lukashenka pointed out. "No doubt, this is a success, especially given poor crops of our neighbours and traditional grain exporters Russia and Ukraine," Lukashenka said.
The state has helped to lay a firm foundation for the stable development of the agricultural complex in Belarus. This year the state budget allocated 50 per cent more funds for agriculture than last year. However, the state will be cutting farming subsidies year after year, Lukashenka said.
In the future, the Belarusian agricultural sector should achieve world standards. A special programme for saving agriculture is being developed to this effect. "If we ruin agriculture we will have to beg either east or west for a piece of bread," Lukashenka said.
Russian company signs agreement with Belarus on gas deliveries in 2004
The Russian oil and gas company, ITERA, and the open joint-stock company, Beltranshaz, have signed a contract on deliveries of natural gas to Belarus in 2004, Ria-Novosti News Agency has reported quoting the press service of the ITERA on 30th September.
The volume of gas deliveries to Belarus next year will come to 7.5bn cubic metres, the press service report notes.
According to the conditions in the contract, the price for gas being delivered by ITERA will be determined by an additional agreement which will be signed later.
This year ITERA plans to deliver 6.3bn cubic metres of gas to Belarus. ITERA has been selling natural gas to Belarusian consumers since 1997. To date, the company is providing for about 40 per cent of the republic's energy needs.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Belarusian, Vietnamese officials discuss economic cooperation
A protocol on the results of the fourth joint session of the Belarusian-Vietnamese intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation was signed in Minsk on 8th October, Belapan News Agency has reported. The session participants discussed ways of implementing agreements reached at the third session of the commission in Hanoi, facilitating the creation of assembly lines based on Belarusian technologies in Vietnam and the prospects for cooperation in new areas.
"We have fully agreed that the tasks set at the third session of the commission were fulfilled," said Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Trade, Le Danh Vinh, who is the commission's Vietnamese co-chairman. "We have discussed areas of continuing cooperation and what goods we can supply to each other. The Vietnamese side thinks that Belarus is strong in such branches as the chemical, car and defence industries. We can cooperate in setting up assembly lines for MAZ lorries and tractors and in purchasing BelAZ [heavy lorries] and defence industry products. Vietnam will export rubber, tea, coffee, rice and clothes to Belarus," Le Danh Vinh said.
Relations between Belarus and Vietnam are developing strongly and are characterized by the high level of political dialogue, close contacts at intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary levels and between representatives of business circles," the commission's Belarusian co-chairman and First Deputy Foreign Minister, Vasil Puhachow, said.
Belarus may build nuclear power station
In three-five years, Belarus will again consider the issue of constructing a nuclear power station in the republic, Deputy Energy Minister Alyaksandr Sivak believes. "It is not entirely correct to deny the possibility of constructing a nuclear power station in Belarus in the future," he said, answering a question from ITAR-TASS News Agency at a meeting with journalists on 1st October.
Appropriate agencies have drawn up the country's fuel and energy plan until 2020, he said. The government-approved version of it is now being considered by the president and is aimed at developing existing sources of power and creating new ones.
Another version of the fuel and energy plan provides for the possibility of constructing a 2,000-MW nuclear power station. Although the government has approved another version of the plan, the possibility of considering the construction of a nuclear power station in Belarus should not be ruled out, Sivak said. In his words, if the version with the nuclear power station proves to be clearly better, "we will come back to it."
Belarus presses for higher EU textile import quotas
Deputy Foreign Minister Alyaksandr Mikhnevich and other Belarusian officials were in Brussels to meet with European trade officials. His mission was to press for higher quotas for Belarusian textiles imported into the European Union, Andrey Savinykh, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told reporters on 2nd October, Belapan News Agency has reported.
One of the arguments for higher quotas is the upcoming enlargement of the European Union. Belarus and the EU signed an agreement on textile quotas in 1993, but these quantitative restrictions, according to the spokesman, prevent the Belarusian factories being used to their full capacity.
Textiles and clothing account for 12.1 per cent of Belarus's exports to the EU. The clothing sector had the second largest share of US$174.5m in last year's total exports to the region.
EU textile quotas for Belarus apply to 34 out of 164 categories, 11 of these being exporters' priorities: cotton fabrics, trousers, blouses, men's shirts, underwear, coats, overcoats, jackets, dresses, skirts, knitted outer garments and linen.
The Foreign Ministry attributes the 16.3 per cent increase (from US$150m) in textile exports to the EU from 1995 to 2000 to its own efforts. The export of the 11 categories alone increased by 98.9 per cent from US$46.2 to US$91.9m, said Mr
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