New Internationalist

Belarus

Issue 262

new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

Country profile - Belarus

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Where is Belarus? go to the contents page [image, unknown]
Where is Belarus? [image, unknown]

Flat and forested, with many lakes and swamps, Belarus lies between Poland and Russia and is fringed by Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. It is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which is made up of 11 states of the former Soviet Union (USSR). Its capital, Minsk, is capital of the CIS.

In the fourteenth century its language, Belarusian, was the only written Russian language. Since independence from the USSR in 1991 Belarusian has replaced Russian as the official language, used on television and radio, and there are plans to make it the language of teaching in schools.

The country’s economy is under tremendous strain. Nearly a quarter of the state budget is spent on mitigating the fall-out from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster at the nuclear power plant a few kilometres over the border in Ukraine. Laws designed to help the one in five Belarusians who live in a contaminated area have been passed, taking damaged agricultural land out of use and providing preferential taxation and other benefits for local people. In large areas forestry will be impossible for many decades, removing a much needed source of revenue.

Formerly, Belarus assembled goods made of components from all over the Soviet Union as part of the strategy cementing the Soviets. The disintegration of the USSR signalled the end of the practice, causing severe difficulties for Belarus, which must seek new suppliers and markets for its finished goods. A natural step would be to turn west and trade with Poland, but with no reserves of convertible currency to buy resources and supplies abroad, Belarus has nothing to offer this potential partner. Instead individual Belarusians buy up goods for resale at home. High demand and little effective consumer protection means that many imports are poor in quality.

Attitudes to the recent past are ambivalent: half an exhibition preserving the decor of rooms where the first Congress of the future Bolshevik Party was held in 1899 has now been dismantled.

In 1922 Belarus joined the USSR as one of its official founders, but in 1941 it was the first of the Soviet republics to experience Hitler’s aggression. You will meet very few women or men there born in 1924: they were the generation leaving school as the German troops marched in. Belarus’s heroic resistance cost the lives of over two million of its people.

Until 1994 Belarus was the only CIS republic to be a parliamentary not presidential democracy. Like Yeltsin in Russia, the newly elected President Aleksander Lukashenko has gained popularity for his zealous drive against corruption. Despite a revivalist stance on the country’s cultural roots the Government’s approach has been marked by economic pragmatism. Unlike many former Communist countries it has renamed only one street in the capital, thus saving the expense of changing official maps and letter-heads.

Liz Guyatt

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Aleksander Lukashenko.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$ 3,110 (US$22,240).   
Monetary unit: Belarusian Rouble.
Main imports: Components and raw materials for producing technical goods.
Main exports: Agricultural and electrical equipment. Chemical and petrochemical products.

PEOPLE: 10.3 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 20 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000). Many people, especially children, are suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. It is possible that the real extent of the disaster is only now manifesting itself because of the delay between radioactive contamination and the onset of disease. Severe shortage of medicines and medical equipment.

CULTURE: Belarusians (77.9%); Russians (13.2%); Poles; Ukrainians; Jews.
Religion: Christian Orthodox; in the western part Catholic.
Languages: Belarusian (official); Russian (spoken as second language by most of population); Polish.

Sources: Third World Guide 1993-4; State of the World’s Children 1994; Human Development Report 1994; The Times’ Peoples of Europe (1994); Svaboda 19 June 1994; The Chernobyl Trace in Belarus, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus (1992).

 

STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Some deterioration after collapse of USSR.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Universal education.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Petroleum reserves in south. Few other mineral resources.
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Lukashenko elected President in July 94 despite TV campaigns favouring Prime Minister Kebich.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Legacy of some equality.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
71 years. (US 76 years)

 

POLITICS

Politics

Official commitment to market economy but little enacted.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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