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: 278 - (01/03/04)
The Belarus republic is Europe's last tyranny. But one hopeful development recently is the formation of an electoral bloc in opposition ahead of forthcoming parliamentary elections
The "5 Plus" bloc
The. Bloc consists of five, embattled democratic parties, joined by a wide array of political and civil rights groups, who are united by one objective, to remove the baleful shadow of President Alexander Lukashenka, who has been astride the pinnacle of power for ten years now. He will not go willingly.
The events in Georgia, coming after those in Serbia, are giving the opposition new heart and fresh hope. It requires great courage to be an oppositionist in Belarus. One literally takes one's life in one's hands by doing so.
The West needs to keep monitoring the situation and giving whatever help it can. Unfortunately Lukashenka is not without his supporters in the countryside, who like his folksy ways. But among the students and the young people in the towns he is widely
despised and detested.
EU probe into labour rights
Sometimes a comparatively minor event can light up a whole landscape, in this case the nature of an unpleasant regime. The EU has launched an investigation into the treatment of labour unions in Belarus. This could result in it losing its right to preferential tariffs on exports into the EU, worth hundreds of millions of euros.
If this happened, it would deal a devastating blow to an economy already reeling under the worst mismanagement in the former Soviet world, with a decade of authoritarian rule and a dearth of foreign investment. The regime imposes tight media censorship, that does not stop at having journalists killed. Its elections are rigged and its opposition parties are harassed into oblivion.
But it is the fate of the trade unions which is the Achilles' heel of the regime from a European point of view, for it warrants drastic measures against it. The case is based on a complaint made by three trade union federations last January, that is in 2003. They wrote to Pascal Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner, claiming that "obstacles have been raised systematically to oppose legal registration of free trade unions, to limit trade union activities, and to repress trade union leaders and activists."
They say that President Lukashenka has had a stooge in charge of the FTUB, the country's main trade union organisation, since July 2002. Should these accusations be confirmed, Belarus could lose all benefits linked to its membership of the EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). Countries are allowed to import goods into the EU at heavily reduced tariffs or even zero duties.
The EU can revoke these privileges if a country fails to abide by certain guidelines, including labour laws and social standards. Concerns over Myanmar's failure to crack down on child labour led Brussels to cancel its GSP status seven years ago - the first and only time the EU has resorted to this measure.
James Howard, director for international labour standards at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, one of the complainants, said: "Given that Belarus exports some very price-sensitive goods such as textiles, its exports could really suffer if found guilty. But in an ideal scenario we would of course like the Belarus government to recognise labour union rights rather than have sanctions."
Games with Russia
The Belarussians do, indeed, have a curmudgeon of a leader. Their president wants his countrymen to join in a very different entity than anything like a trade union, namely a union with Russia, just like the old days. By no means all of them welcome the prospect.
Minsk is the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On September 29th the CIS had a meeting in Yalta, where a new departure was made. Putin persuaded the presidents of three key FSU states, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakstan, the very three which had agreed with Russia to the death warrant of the Soviet Union back in November 1991, to enter into a far-reaching economic treaty, envisaging a 'common economic space.' That this is not just moonshine is shown by the agreement of Belarus to adopt the Russian rouble.
Belarus has been given a target date of January 2005 to introduce the Russian rouble as its currency. This is part of a Putin-sponsored plan to reincorporate the country into a new union with Russia, ruled from the Kremlin. The union already exists in embryo as the Russo-Belarussian Union, whose state secretary is none other than Pavel Borodin, the eminence grise of the Kremlin in the Yeltsin years. Putin was once his deputy and has returned favours by protecting Borodin from extradition demands from the Swiss, who have charged him with money-laundering on an extensive scale.
Beltransgaz extends contracts with Itera and Trans Nafta
Belarus's Beltransgaz recently extended gas contracts with Itera Holding and Trans Nafta. "The contracts with independent suppliers of natural gas to Belarus have been extended," a Beltransgaz source said recently, Interfax News Agency reported.
These companies have resumed the delivery of gas to Belarus in full, he said. A Trans Nafta source said that they supplied 1.2bn cubic metres of gas to Belarus in January 2004. Trans Nafta supplied 500m cubic metres of gas to Belarus from January 1st to 16th. Itera Holding and Trans Nafta told Gazprom recently that Beltransgaz and Belarus started taking gas without authorisation on January 16th. Beltransgaz and Gazprom continue negotiations on gas delivery terms for 2004. Gazprom stopped supplying gas to Belarus on January 1st, 2004, but continued gas transit. Gas contracts with Belarus have not been signed. In 2003 Gazprom supplied 10.2bn cubic metres of gas to Belarus at the price applicable for the fifth price zone (US$30 per 1,000 cubic metres).
Trade deficit up 66% in January-November
Belarus increased its foreign trade deficit 66% year-on-year in January-November 2003 to US$899.1m, the statistics and analysis ministry said recently. Foreign trade increased 24.4% to US$21.56bn, with exports up 23% to US$10.33bn. The visible foreign trade deficit increased 50% in January-November 2003 to US$1.29bn. Belarus saw a services trade surplus of US$391.5m. Visible foreign trade amounted to US$19.23bn, a rise of 25.6% on January-November 2002. Exports rose 24.3% to US$8.97bn and imports went up 26.7% to US$10.26bn. Services trade grew 15.6% to US$2.33bn with exports up 15.6% to US$1.36bn and imports up 15.5% to US$971.9m. The foreign trade deficit increased 21% in 2002 to US$882.2m, New Europe reported recently.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Russia, Belarus To Sign Foreign Policy Program of Actions for 2004-05
Participants in a joint meeting of the collegiums of the Foreign Ministries of Russia and Belarus "plan to sign a program of coordinated actions in the field of foreign policy for 2004-2005," spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Yakovenko, who took part in the meeting, said, Itar-Tass News Agency reported.
"The 26-page document embraces all aspects of the two countries' foreign policy," the diplomat said. Besides the joint meeting of the collegiums, a separate meeting between Igor Ivanov and his Belarassian counterpart Sergei Martynov is planned to be held. During the meeting, the sides will consider topical problems of bilateral relations.
Electrolux may buy into Russian-Belarussian JV
Electrolux of Sweden is interested in buying shares in Brest Gas Appliance Plant, a Russian-Belarussian joint venture, Interfax News Agency reported.
A delegation from Electrolux visited the joint venture at the beginning of the year and has made proposals about exchanging production and shown an interest in buying shares, Brest Gas Appliance Plant said. However, the joint venture's marketing department is worried that it will face difficulties selling more expensive products under the Electrolux brand name. At the moment the plant has a stable position on domestic and foreign markets and is not having sales problems, a spokesman said. The company does need to expand its range and working with Electrolux could help create a new image. Brest Gas Appliance Plant produces gas and electric stoves and ovens under the trademark Gefest.
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