Books on Belarus
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: 280 - (29/04/04)
Lukashenka in gas row with Moscow
In February Moscow took an unprecedented step to bring Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to heel and remind him who really calls the shots in his part of the world. It is high time for him to start behaving properly (in the manner the Kremlin wants him to).
Gazprom on 18 February halted gas supplies to Belarus completely, acting through two of its clients. Since the beginning of January, Belarus received gas from the formally independent traders Itera and Transnafta under short-term, "emergency" contracts, paying some $47 per 1,000 cubic meters. When a subsequent contract expired on 18 February and Minsk showed no willingness to sign another one, Gazprom turned off its gas tap.
It charged that Minsk exhausted contractual gas quotas and began to siphon off Russian gas flowing in transit to Western Europe. Gazprom has refused to supply gas to Belarus since the beginning of the year, demanding a higher price for deliveries and favorable terms in the potential purchase of a controlling stake in Belarus's gas-pipeline operator Beltranshaz. To these two demands Lukashenka has steadfastly objected, at least until recently. Moscow is offering a price for Beltranshaz in the hundreds of millions of dollars, whereas Lukashenka claims it is worth $5bn at least.
An accord to set up a Belarusian-Russian joint venture to run Belarus's gas-pipeline network, which is now run by Beltranshaz, was signed in April 2002, in addition to an agreement on the supply of 10 million cubic meters of gas to Belarus at a preferential price of some $30 per 1,000 cubic meters (Russia's domestic price for gas supplied to Smolensk Oblast bordering on Belarus). The planned sale of a stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom collapsed in mid-2003, after Lukashenka valued the company at $5 billion and offered only a 50 percent stake, while Gazprom said it would pay only $600 million for a controlling stake.
Lukashenka turns on Putin, but has to back down
Lukashenka's first reaction to the gas cutoff was furious. Unlike several previous bitter rows with Moscow, this time the Belarusian president did not look for some "backstage" culprits but attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin directly. He accused the Russian leader of pursuing economic "terrorism," adding that such a hostile step had not been made against Belarus since the end of World War II. But later the same day, Lukashenka suddenly backed down and agreed to pay a higher price -- $50 per 1,000 cubic meters -- for Russian gas. In what seemed to be his last propagandistic salvo of anti-Putin spitefulness, Lukashenka publicly announced that he will take money from "Chernobyl victims" and "people who rotted in the trenches" to pay the higher gas bills.
An unidentified official from the Russian Foreign Ministry lambasted Lukashenka on the ministry's official website for his "provocative statements" on 19 February, noting that Belarus's defective socioeconomic development and international isolation were caused by none other than the Belarusian president himself. It was the first time that Moscow officially criticized Lukashenka's policies. Quite understandably, the Russian Foreign Ministry kept totally silent over the fact that it was primarily the Kremlin's unconditional political support and cheap gas supplies that allowed Lukashenka to pursue such policies for almost 10 years. But now it seems that Moscow has decided to close the period of cheap gas supplies to Belarus for good.
Lukashenka has threatened to renounce unspecified "agreements" with Russia in retaliation to Gazprom's demand of a higher price for gas, but it is rather unlikely that, as some analysts suggest, he may immediately decide on re-establishing a full-scale customs border with his eastern neighbour, thus putting a practical end to the much-publicized Russia-Belarus Union. Even though the idea of a union state with Belarus seems to have lost influential advocates in Russia, Lukashenka has no other reliable political foundation on which he could place his hopes for political survival, especially as many Belarusian observers assert that he is planning to remain in power beyond the end of his second term in 2006.
A day after consenting to pay the higher price for gas, Lukashenka backed down even further and called against "politicising" the gas dispute with Moscow. He seems to realize quite perfectly that it is Putin who is now dealing the cards in the Russia-Belarus integration game. Therefore, Lukashenka will pay higher gas bills, even if grudgingly, and will most likely try to bargain away Beltranshaz for the highest possible price, including the Kremlin's consent to his staying for a third presidential term.
Judging by his incoherent reactions, Moscow's decision to cut off gas supplies to Belarus took Lukashenka completely by surprise. Indeed, it was an extreme measure to which Russia did not resort even during its row with Ukraine over gas siphoning in 2000-01, when the cost of the Russian gas allegedly stolen by the Ukrainians reached, according to some estimates, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.
But Ukraine's case for Russia is somewhat different than Belarus's. Even if warily, Kyiv has allowed Russian businesses to penetrate the Ukrainian market and participate in some major Ukrainian privatisations. Lukashenka, on the other hand, is keeping the most attractive privatisation assets in Belarus strictly under his control and does not allow the Russians to snatch away even a bit of them. Thus, Moscow's harsh measure to force him into submission is understandable, at least at an emotional level. And this measure seems to have worked, even if it is not clear yet whether Lukashenka will finally agree to sell Beltranshaz and at what price.
The current gas conflict between Minsk and Moscow is also a difficult dilemma for the Belarusian opposition. Objectively, Lukashenka is defending the country's economic interests, even if these interests are very closely linked to his political career. On the other hand, there is a general belief among Belarusian opposition leaders that it is impossible to depose Lukashenka without Moscow's blessing and/or nudge. Therefore, the Belarusian opposition seems to be in two minds over what to do now -- to protest Moscow's economic blackmail and thus indirectly take Lukashenka's side or, quite the opposite, to join Moscow in pressing the Belarusian president to adopt a more relaxed privatisation policy and thus face Lukashenka's accusations of acting against national interests.
So far, the baffled Belarusian opposition has not issued any statement on the gas dispute and its implications. Ironically, it was the government that huddled several hundred workers in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk for an ad hoc anti-Moscow demonstration on 19 February, after Gazprom halted the gas flow. Lukashenka, the main engine of the Russian-Belarusian integration until recently, is now assuming some tasks of its staunch opponents as well.
Opposition organises: the "5 Plus" bloc
An opposition is, nevertheless, forming in Belarus. Lukashenko is an egregious ass, who likes to engage in sports which he invariably wins Idi Amin-style. He is undoubtedly a buffoon, but, as the British historian Sir Lewis Namier said of Ribbentrop, he is "a sinister buffoon." Journalists and oppositionists 'disappear.' It requires real courage to oppose him, but that is, exactly what many exasperated by his clowning are now doing. One literally takes one's life in one's hands by doing so. The events in Georgia, coming after those in Serbia, are giving the opposition new heart and fresh hope.
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 the president, who has been astride the pinnacle of power for ten years now. He will not go willingly.
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.
President Lukashenka on 20 February signed a decree "On enhancing the cadres for ideological work in the Republic of Belarus." The decree obliges the managers and heads of all enterprises and organizations in Belarus to appoint a deputy head for ideology.
The document also specifies how many people should be employed by local executive authorities' departments for ideology and establishes procedures for such appointments. Thus, six oblast executive committees and the Minsk City Executive Committee should have 15 ideologists each, while raion executive committees are to employ from three to six persons, depending on the number of population in raions. The appointment of the deputy heads for ideology in the central-government institutions, nationwide media outlets, higher educational institutions (including private ones), and oblast executive committees should be approved by the presidential administration. The Academy of Management under the Belarusian president will take care of training professional ideologists for the country. According to an estimate by "Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta," the number of ideologists in Belarus will amount to no fewer than 10,000 people.
Deputy presidential administration chief Aleh Pralyaskouski told journalists recently in a display of mendacity usual for the regime that, according to a poll conducted by a presidential polling centre, 80 percent of Belarusians think that the Belarusian state needs ideology. Pralyaskouski stressed that ideology is especially coveted by younger generations - the poll found that more than 70 percent of Belarusians under the age of 30 think that state ideology is necessary. According to Pralyaskouski, the poll also established that the main functions of state ideologists should be explaining the country's domestic and foreign policies, informing the population, and forming public opinion. Pralyaskouski added that the presidential administration is continuing work on formulating the foundations of state ideology of the republic of Belarus.
FOREIGN ECONOMIC COOPERATION
Belarusian president urges closer economic ties between CIS member states
Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenka, considers "the most speedy introduction of a free trade regime" the ultimate objective of economic cooperation of CIS countries, Lukashenka said during his meeting with CIS foreign ministers, Belapan News Agency reported.
Lukashenka said that "we do not require new declarative documents. The approval of previously signed documents should be finalized." He stressed effective economic cooperation between the CIS countries depends to a large extent on gradual and undisputed implementation of the plan for the execution of the most important measures aimed at developing and raising the efficiency of economic cooperation in, 2003-10, the period signed by CIS heads of state in Yalta.
Belarus posts 130-per-cent increase in foreign investment in 2003
Belarus attracted US$1,306.5m in foreign investment in 2003, Belapan News Agency reported, quoting the Economics Ministry.
Foreign direct investment reached US$674.5m in 2003, which is a 130-per-cent increase on the previous year, Belapan added. Companies from Switzerland accounted for 53 per cent of the funds invested, followed by Russia (21.4 per cent), Great Britain (8.8 per cent), Germany (2.8 per cent), Sweden and the USA (2.4 per cent), Belapan said.
Belarus ups industrial output in January-February
Belarus posted industrial output in current prices of 6.71 trillion Belarussian rubles in January-February 2004, up 13.2 per cent year-on-year in constant prices, the statistics and analysis ministry said recently, Interfax News Agency reported.
Production increased 2.8 per cent from the previous month in February 2004. In value terms, output increased 63.8 per cent in ferrous metallurgy in January-February, 19.5 per cent in chemicals and petrochemicals, 16 per cent for machine building and metal processing, 14.9 per cent for construction materials, 14.1 per cent in electricity, 11.2 per cent for wood, pulp and paper, 5.7 per cent for fuel, 9.3 per cent in the light industry and 9.3 per cent in food. Belarus produced 5.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, up 22.2 per cent year-on-year.
Belarussian trade surplus at US$46m in January
The Belarussian trade surplus in January 2004 amounted to US$46.2m compared with US$16.6m in January 2003, the ministry for statistics and analysis said, Interfax News Agency reported.
Belarussian foreign trade increased 17% to US$1.883bn in January, with exports up 21.1% to US$964.8m and imports up 13% to US$918.6m.
The trade surplus for goods in January amounted to US$4.6m compared with a trade deficit of US$62.8m in January 2003. The surplus for trade in services fell 10% to US$41.6m. Foreign trade in goods in January increased 17.6% to US$1.699bn, including an increase of 23.3% to US$847.3m for imports. Trade in services increased 11.8% to US$184.2m, including a 7% increase in exports to US$112.9m and a 20.4% increase in imports to US$71.3m. The Belarussian trade deficit in 2003 amounted to US$1.0569bn.
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