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: 272 - (29/08/03)
New constitutional move
The has been a new development in Belarus, which its maverick dictator announced in the silly season, no doubt hoping that it would cause less backlash in the summer when many are on holiday.
He has made clear his decision to change the constitution, allowing him to run for a third term. His term of office since 1994 has been characterised by political killings and harassment of the opposition. He won re-election two years ago, with a 75% majority, almost certainly an 'assisted victory' margin. But such is his hold on the rural voters (he was once a collective farm boss) that he might just have won anyway.
The Belarus countryside is not what it was in those days under Brezhnev. The agricultural system collapsed with perestroika and from being the richest republic in the USSR it is now one of the poorest in the FSU. And then there is the aftermath of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident.
The shade of Chernobyl
In March 1986, seventeen years ago the Chernobyl nuclear reactor had its famous meltdown. An ill wind was blowing for Belarus as the contamination headed northwards. Indeed, the Belarus government claims that 70% of the radioactive fall-out descended on Belarus, particularly severely in the south-east of the republic. Chernobyl is almost on the border and some 130kms from Gomel, which is more attractive than the capital, Minsk.
The incidence of abnormalities among infants is still rising in the south-east and the population is diminishing. The director of Gomel Hospital, Viacheslav Ljakovski indicates the ongoing problem: "the quantity of fatalities among children is constantly growing. The number of malformations among infants is very important: 800 in the Gomel region for 14,000 births in 2000, against 280 for 28,000 births in 1995." The link to radioactivity would seem to be established.
Gomel and Maguilev regions have a higher rate of decrease of population than the average - 4.4 per 1,000 and 5.4 respectively against 4.1 for the whole country. The economy is tottering, new enterprises fail to open and agriculture cannot develop, products being always suspected of being radioactive. Potatoes, all root vegetables indeed and especially mushrooms are dangerous, while beef and milk are infected.
For a republic that was once a main supplier of food to the entire Soviet Union, providing 25% of its meat, for instance, the accident was an unmitigated disaster. Once with the best standard of living in the USSR, it is now one of the poorest states. The catastrophe has cost the economy at least US$295m, a huge sum on conversion into local currency. The management of its consequences account for 8% of the budget. In the contaminated regions regular check-ups and controls on foodstuffs and medicines are made. Children are sent to sanatoria.
Lack of democracy worsens the situation
The Gorbachev government admitted the situation, but only tardily. In the 1991-94 period more information was provided, but since 1994 the Lukashenka regime has not disclosed the full dangers. "The principal problem is that people do not think they are living in a radioactive environment for lack of information," said Svetlana Goldade, former mayor of Gomel. The government downplays the issue in hopes of dispelling fears and reducing expenditure in the contaminated provinces, the opposite of what it should be doing.
The whole problem is a time-bomb for the regime, as is the growing disaffection of the young, especially students. People are wanting to leave. The county is in a bad and worsening way. One dissident scientist, Yuri Baridajevski tried to alert people about the perils of contaminated milk. He has been imprisoned since 2001.
Help is not coming from outside, as violations of human rights have put Belarus in the freezer as regards the West. The last dictatorship in Europe is under pressure. Lukashenka likes to dominate whenever he can, along with his 150,000 KGB operatives (still called such). But one cannot dominate nature and if one tries it can take its revenge. This may yet bring the Lukashenka regime down.
Belarus insists on controlling shares in venture with Gazprom
The Belarussian government issued a resolution establishing the terms for setting up a joint venture between Beltransgaz and Russia's Gazprom to transport gas, a Belarussian state source said, Interfax News Agency reported. According to the government resolution, controlling shares in the joint venture (50% plus one share) should remain the property of Belarus. The sale of shares in Beltransgaz will be carried out at market value. The Belarussian government has set the market value for 100% of Beltransgaz shares at US$4.5-5bn. Previously Belarus announced a market price for the company of US$3.5bn. The Beltransgaz charter capital amounts to US$600m.
The document stated that Gazprom should contribute the Belarussian section of the Yamal-Western Europe pipeline as a non-cash contribution to the charter capital of the joint venture. As a condition for Gazprom's participation in the setting up of a gas transportation joint venture, the Belarussian government is demanding that the republic's natural gas requirements be met in full (18.5bn cubic metres in 2003, 21.5bcm in 2004, 25bcm in 2005 and 33bcm per annum form 2010). This volume of natural gas should be supplied at the wholesale prices for consumers in the fifth price range in Russia.
In addition, the joint venture should carry out a US$1.726bn investment in the reconstruction of the Belarussian gas transport system, including US$326m in completing the construction of gas reservoirs. As a condition for the operation of the gas transport organisation it will be necessary to use the Belarussian gas transportation system to the full, including increasing gas transit to 100bcm in 2003-2011. The joint venture should also maintain social guarantees for Beltransgaz workers.
The resolution states that Belarus has taken the necessary steps for the venture to be set up and the processing of the necessary permissions for this has been completed. The Belarussian government has ordered the energy ministry to ensure that work is carried to set up the joint organisation in line with the proposals approved by the government.
The setting up of the joint venture is covered by an intergovernmental agreement on expending cooperation in the gas industry, signed by Russia and Belarus on April 12th, 2002. In line with the agreement, it was planned to set up the agreement by July 1st, 2003.
However, Gazprom Deputy CEO, Alexander Ryazanov, told journalists earlier that Gazprom will never buy a share in Beltransgaz for an astronomical price. He said that Gazprom is ready to acquire a share in the joint venture for a nominal price, and that even that would be expensive.
A source in the Russian company was quoted as saying that Gazprom wants to guarantee a return on investment, therefore it is insisting on acquiring at least 50% in the joint company to be set up based on Beltransgaz. The source said that Gazprom's position is that it is necessary to acquire a packet of not less than 50% of Beltransgaz shares. "The size of the packet is of primary importance for the Russian company, as only controlling shares in the joint venture will provide a guarantee of a return on investment," he stressed.
The source said that the company is ready to set up a joint gas transportation venture based on Beltransgaz, if the cost of the entire Belarussian company amounts to not more than US$1bn.
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