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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 17,493 14,304 12,200 76
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,590 1,360 1,290 122
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Principal ethnic groups
Belarusians 77.9%
Russians 13.2%
Poles 4%


(Belarusian Rouble)

Alexander Lukashenka

Update No: 302 - (27/02/06)

The coming crunch
Events in Belarus are not necessarily as pre-ordained as is being generally supposed. Few thought that tyranny had met its nemesis in Ukraine in late 2004; but it had. Still the augurs so far do not look too good.
Belarus will hold a presidential election on 19th March, in which incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka is seeking a third consecutive term. Even the most optimistic among the opposition concede it is unlikely that the Central Election Commission will announce anything but a landslide victory for the incumbent, who won by 76% last time. Over the years of Lukashenka's rule, elections in Belarus have steadily evolved into mere exercises in simulated democracy.

Professor Challenger
There is now, however, a formidable challenger to the regime, Allexander Milinkevich, a retired professor of physics and obviously a rather more intelligent, not to say decent, man than the existing incumbent of the presidency. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, conceived another curmudgeonly character in Professor Challenger, eternal foe of orthodoxy. The Belarussians may just be lucky enough to have another such in Milinkevich.
On 8th February, Belarus' Central Election Commission said its territorial branches in Hrodna Oblast annulled ballot-access signatures collected for Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate, in 10 of the oblast's 17 districts. According to the commission, more than 15 per cent of signatures collected for Milinkevich in these districts were false or otherwise defective, which under electoral regulations in force disqualifies the lists altogether. 
Alexander Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's election team manager, said the annulment is a deliberate step by the authorities to discredit the united opposition candidate in his native region and undermine public trust in him. "We have Xerox copies of all signature lists and we are ready to check the authenticity of all the submitted signatures jointly with territorial election commissions, but have been told 'no' everywhere," he added. 
Milinkevich reportedly submitted 198,000 signatures to support his presidential bid; that is, well in excess of the 100,000 required for his registration as a presidential candidate. But it's hard to say whether he is on the safe side during the ongoing checks of ballot-access signatures. If territorial commissions in Belarus's other five regions and the city of Minsk follow the example of those in Hrodna Oblast, he may simply be denied registration and eliminated from the presidential race. 

First Hurdle 
The checking of signatures is only one stage of the tortuous process that opposition candidates face in order to challenge President Alexander Lukashenka. Since the opposition in Belarus has virtually no representatives in the power system, either at the central or regional level, it is completely at the mercy of the authorities, which not only set the rules of the electoral game but also interpret these rules in the way they want to. And no one can challenge these rules or their interpretations because there is no independent arbiter in the country. Belarus's judicial system is nothing more than a punishing arm of the executive. 
Campaigning in Belarus is another problem. Campaigning is possible only after the registration of candidates, which was expected to take place close to the 21st February, thus leaving the registered candidates only four weeks for promoting their bids among the electorate. Each of the registered candidates will obtain some US$30,000 from the state to cover costs of his campaign. Exceeding this amount in campaign expenses is fraught with disqualification from the race. 
Each of the candidates will also be offered two 30-minute appearances on state-run radio and another two on state-run television, where they may present their pre-recorded addresses to voters. If radio and television authorities deem the addresses inappropriate, they may ban them from being aired. Given Belarus's tight anti-defamation legislation and lax rules of official interpretation of what defamation is, it is hardly possible for independent candidates to criticize the government of President Lukashenka during these broadcasts. There is no legal possibility for presidential candidates to place election advertisements on state-run television and radio apart from the above-mentioned appearances. 
Registered candidates will have only four weeks to campaign before the election. 
Each of the registered candidates may also publish his election platform -- not exceeding 10,000 characters -- in seven nationwide state-run newspapers. And the Central Election Commission's Lidziya Yarmoshyna warned on 8th February that the candidates should not try to do so in non-state press. Yarmoshyna argued that giving a presidential candidate the opportunity to publish his articles in a non-state newspaper will be tantamount to providing illegal financial support, which in its turn may serve as a reason for the candidate's exclusion from the race. 
And presidential candidates cannot meet with voters where they want. They may only meet at venues provided by local authorities. Of course, that's if the candidates are able to pay the rent without exceeding the authorized campaign fund. 

Government Counts 
Counting the ballots in Belarus is totally under the government's control. In theory, the electoral code allows political parties and nongovernmental organization to be represented on territorial election commissions. But in the practice of the past decade, the authorities did not let any meaningful group of opposition representatives or democratic-minded NGOs to participate in these commissions. This year they were extremely uncompromising -- out of 74,107 people selected for 6,586 precinct election commission, only two individuals represent the opposition parties. 
Election observers, either international or domestic, do not add much to making the ballot counting more transparent and reliable -- observers are not allowed into the room where the process is taking place and may observe it only through an open door from an adjacent room. It has never happened in the past 10 years of Lukashenka's rule that the authorities allowed election monitors to recount the ballots at some precinct in order to compare their result with the official one. Indeed, even obtaining information about the number of eligible voters in a given precinct frequently proves to be an impossible task. 
Election observers will not be allowed to enter the room where the vote counting is taking place. 
The strict campaign rules do not apply, of course, to the incumbent president. Lukashenka may advertise his presidential bid whenever and wherever he wants -- he may always claim that he speaks on election issues as the head of state, not as a presidential candidate. And he does not need to bother himself about his election fund. He simply does not have to pay for anything. And he may habitually call his political opponents "thug" (otmorozki) on television and describe them as mercenaries of the West, without bothering himself about defamation laws. 

The electoral power of Sausage 
However, what the authorities are really concerned about is election turnout. The government does everything possible to show that Lukashenka's policies enjoy wide and enthusiastic popular support. Therefore, casting ballots in Belarus actually begins six days before the voting day, and people are encouraged by the government to vote early. And on the voting day the authorities at many polling stations offer vodka and sausages as well as other consumer goods at discount prices. 
The government does everything possible to show that Lukashenka's policies enjoy wide and enthusiastic popular support. 
A poll taken by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of January found that nationwide nearly 55 per cent of Belarusians want to vote for Lukashenka and just 17 per cent for Milinkevich. Practically, Lukashenka could win in a fully democratic ballot. But he has his own way of handling elections. His own pollster, the Institute for Social and Political Studies, immediately reacted by saying that in a poll it held in December, 77 per cent of respondents said they wanted to vote for the incumbent. According to the presidential institute, support for any other presidential candidate did not exceed 2 per cent. Some Belarusian independent observers, leaning on the experience of previous election campaigns in the country, have opined that 77 per cent is the minimum that Lukashenka would tolerate to see as his result in the Central Election Commission's protocol after the 19th March vote.


We relay the following text, in which the challenger has his say:-

Milinkevich Says He Wants A Country Without Fear 
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition forces' candidate for the 19th March presidential election in Belarus, held an online news conference hosted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 23 January. Below are translated excerpts.

Question: Don't you think that the majority of Belarusians are all but satisfied with the current state of affairs, that they are afraid of possible changes, that they see no alternative to the system that takes care of them, guarantees jobs and bread for them, and provides them with the possibility to settle accounts with [local] officials?

Alyaksandr Milinkevich: I see the opposite, and during my many trips to Belarusian regions I have become more and more convinced [of it]. A significant part of the people -- and their number is steadily increasing -- has become fed up with leading a life of indignity and of the uncertainty of the future. People have become fed up with the contract [employment] system that has made slaves out of them, that has made them dependent on the arbitrariness of brainless supervisors. [They have become] sick of the endless lies on television about the subsequent successes of the Belarusian [economic] "miracle," boorishness, and the everyday humiliation of an honest and decent people. [They have become] tired of being kept by the authorities on a short leash. They want to live, not to struggle to survive, they want justice and the rule of law. True, not everyone today can speak openly about this, but a breakthrough is under way.

Question: If the united opposition suffers a failure -- and nobody doubts that this will be so -- and if street protests fail, what next? Will the opposition remain united, with you as the leader, and will it continue fighting?

Milinkevich: You need to realize the significance and seriousness of what has happened. It is the first time during Belarus's independence that all healthy democratic forces, despite their [different] political views, have united to change the situation in Belarus for the better, to build a state that will respect its citizens and will be respected in the world. Everybody understands that squabbles between [democratic] parties and organizations play today only into the hands of the ruling regime. Our coalition is a significant achievement of Belarus's democratic forces. We understand perfectly well that the day of 19 March will perhaps not conclude anything. We have agreed to go forward together and, thank God, everybody understands this necessity.

Question: Don't you want to join the "popular vote" campaign organized by supporters of Zyanon Paznyak? [Editor's note: Presidential contender Zyanon Paznyak, exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party, has called on opponents of the incumbent president to cast fake ballots on election day and take away the originals, which will be counted later by an independent commission. The goal of this "popular vote" is to find out how many people actually voted against President Alexander Lukashenka in order to substantiate possible claims of vote rigging.]

Milinkevich: It is important for us today not to lose people, to bolster their faith in victory. The "popular vote" aims not to activate the democratic-minded electorate but rather to discourage people. Just like a boycott. If we could be sure that we are able to explain the sense of the "popular-vote" idea to the overwhelming majority of Belarusians and tell them where they can take alternative ballots, we could count on some success. But we have no such possibilities today. It is much easier -- and we are calling on everybody to do this -- to rally around the campaign of a single contender who has the support of the united democratic forces.

Question: How is it possible to raise the political awareness of the population? What are you planning to do to inform [people about your presidential bid], apart from meetings with voters and articles in the independent press?

Milinkevich: We rely on the remaining independent newspapers, radio [programs] made by Belarusians, samizdat, and the initiatives of active and indifferent people in the regions.

Question: Are you planning to address the Belarusian people with the help of the Russian media?

Milinkevich: There are some projects.

Question: Could you identify the plusses in what has been done by the current authorities?

Milinkevich: As regards the plusses, the country has not been sold out. Second, the country has no extensive unemployment, even if there is some hidden unemployment. I do not consider the timely payment of pensions as the authorities' [plus] -- it is the authorities' duty [to pay pensions timely]. Cleanliness in the cities is a good thing but they are often Potemkin villages.

Question: What will happen if everything goes according to the 2001 [presidential-election] scenario: Alyaksandr Lukashenka gets 75 per cent of the vote, Milinkevich -- no more than 15 per cent? There may be no more than 10,000 people on October Square [in Minsk]. They will stay there for several days and go home. And you will be arrested for organizing "mass unrest."

Milinkevich: If the authorities stage a dishonest election, there will be more people [on the square]. I am sure that there will be no 2001 scenario. Belarus is different already today. And after 19 March it will be a totally different country.

Question: What will happen after the announcement of the election results from a screen on October Square: Lukashenka 82 per cent, Milinkevich 4 per cent? Will the crowd roar and tear up the square in front of the presidential office? Or will [U.S. President] George W. Bush lose his temper and launch a missile?

Milinkevich: We are not working [just] to hear from the mouth of [Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya] Yarmoshyna that we have lost. All of us are realists. We have our feet on the ground. Our goal is to change the social mood, to prove that the current authorities cannot win a democratic election.

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Beltransgaz to increase gas transit revenue 6% 

Belarussian gas transport company, OAO Beltransgaz, plans to receive US$210 million from transiting Russian gas in 2006, which is 6.1 per cent more than in 2005, company Chief Engineer, Tsvitomir Sorokhan, said at a press conference, New Europe reported.
"This year gas transit from Russia through Belarus will increase by almost three billion cubic metres, which will make it possible to increase revenue to US$210 million," he said. He added that transit of gas from Russia this year should amount to 44 billion cubic metres, which is 7.8 per cent more than last year. Sorokhan said that the Yamal-Europe pipeline plays a significant role in gas transit. Transit through this pipeline in 2005 amounted to 27 billion cubic metres, which will increase to 29 billion cubic metres in 2006. The increase in volumes was achieved thanks to the launch of two new compressor stations. Two more stations are to be launched this year - in Minsk and Orsha, which will make it possible to increase gas transit to 33 billion cubic metres.

LUKoil plans to invest 500- 600m Euro in Belarus 

The Russian oil company, LUKoil, is planning to invest 500-600 million Euro in the Belarussian economy, counting on economic and political stability in that country, LUKoil President, Vagit Alekperov, said, Interfax News Agency reported. 
"Our company has invested about 100 million Euro in the Belarussian economy, and we are prepared to launch new projects estimated at 500-600 million Euro," Alekperov told Interfax in Minsk. Before entering any market, "we calculate all risks, including economic, financial, and political ones," Alekperov said. "We have calculated these risks in relation to Belarus as well," he said. "Such political stability does exist in Belarus for the investor's work, for free movement of profits, and for reaching the profitability level," Alekperov said.

Belarus ready to help boost gas transit to Europe 

Belarussian cooperation with Russia's Gazprom in building underground storage facilities, in gas treatment and in transit deliveries to Europe has good prospects, Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenka, said. "Gazprom is showing great interest in Belarus from the viewpoint of building underground stores, delivering gas, treating and processing it here," he said at a meeting in Minsk with the leadership of oil company, LUKoil. Lukashenka made the comments during a meeting with Vagit Alekperov, the president of Russian oil company Lukoil. "We are ready to work with you under the same principles," he said. Belarus and Gazprom are discussing construction of a second line of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, Lukashenka said. "We promised to build two compressor stations last year and did that ahead of schedule. We promised the Russian government and president that next year we will build the entire infrastructure for the gas pipeline to guarantee Russia's independence in gas deliveries to Europe, and we will surely do that," Lukashenka said. "You should have no doubts about our word. If we promise something, we stick to our promise," he said, New Europe reported.

Russia, Belarus discuss building union state 

The presidents of Russia and Belarus recently discussed issues in building the long-planned union state between their countries and hailed the progress in the development of the union, New Europe reported. 
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said he had "a detailed and frank discussion of a broad range of issues in the strengthening of the Russian-Belarussian integration" with his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenka, at the meeting of the Russia-Belarus Union Supreme State Council in St. Petersburg. More than three billion roubles (about US$110 million) have been allocated to the Russia-Belarus union's 2006 budget for an array of projects ranging from computer technology development to Chernobyl disaster support.

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Belarus amalgamates metals plants 

Belarussian President, Alexander Lukashenka, on January 28th signed a decree on the formation of the Belarussian Metallurgical Plant Production Association, Lukashenka's press office said, New Europe reported.
This non-profit organisation is being set up to bolster the country's scientific, technical and industrial potential, the decree says. The move will help metals plants logistically, enabling them to increase output of competitive products and exports and to deepen cooperation. The new association will be led by the Belarussian Metallurgical Plant (BMZ), the country's biggest steel mill from Zhlobin in the Gomel region, and the Rechitsa Metalware Plant, both of which are accountable directly to the Belarussian Industry Ministry.

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