Martin Roemers / Panos
In Belarus 40 per cent of the land is still forested, and the wilder areas are still home to wolves, elk, wild pigs, bears and lynx – the Belavezhskaja Pusha nature reserve is Europe’s largest stretch of primeval forest. The few intrepid tourists who make it to rural areas are likely to be regaled not only by passionate folk singers in traditional embroidered peasant costumes but also by theatre groups using shadow puppets and mime. The puppetry can be illuminating: cut-out horseback knights and soldier puppets, above and across a sheaf of red silk, symbolizing rivers of blood. Belarusian history is seen as a bleak tapestry and its people are steeped in painful memories.
Most of that history, since Belarusian culture distinguished itself from that of Russia and Ukraine between the 14th and 16th centuries, has involved occupation by neighbours: Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. Part of the Russian Empire from the end of the 18th century, Belarus was a founding member of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution. In 1941, Belarus was occupied by the Nazis, who were ousted three years later by Belarusian Partisans and the Soviet Army (which included 1.1 million Belarusian soldiers). In the war years, over a quarter of the population (2.2 million people) was killed. Belarus’ Jewish population was targeted and murdered or sent to concentration camps to die. Few Belarusians have forgotten this period: ‘When you have forgotten the war, the next one has already started’, according to one local saying.
Belarus declared independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991. It is still, however, a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which Russia set up to keep its former colonies close. President Alexander Lukashenko was initially elected in 1994 on a ticket of pragmatism and economic stability – Belarusians had quickly been worried by the economic liberalization measures of the early 1990s. He has kept to that promise, keeping over 80 per cent of industries under state control, while allowing per capita income to more than double in the last 10 years. He has won large majorities in subsequent presidential elections, though the 83-per-cent victory in 2006 sparked protest that it had been rigged – the European Union imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and 30 top aides and ministers in protest.
Russia is an important ally, accounting for nearly two-thirds of Belarus’ imports and just over a third of its exports. Belarus relies on discounted Russian oil and gas, sometimes selling them on at market prices.
Collective farms dominate agricultural production, mainly producing potatoes (Belarus’ national vegetable), pigs and flax. Estimates of individual productivity vary, but most people living in rural areas have at least a hectare of land, a well, chickens, vegetable plot, fruit trees, a pig and often a cow. Many houses in rural Belarus are wooden, heated by wood-burning stoves and lit by low-energy bulbs. Belarus has over 20,000 rivers and lakes, so fish are plentiful and form an important part of the diet.
Between 10 and 20 per cent of the state budget is still spent every year on mitigating the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster at the nuclear power plant close to the border with Ukraine; 23 per cent of agricultural land is still contaminated. Despite a moratorium after Chernobyl, Belarus is now considering building its first new nuclear power station. Would a modern nuclear plant be safer than Chernobyl? The long-suffering people of Belarus would like to know.