Country in east-central Europe, bounded south by Ukraine, east by Russia, west by Poland, and north by Latvia and Lithuania.
Government Belarus has an authoritarian political system, dominated by its executive president. Under the 1994 constitution, the state president is directly elected for a five-year term, serves as commander in chief of the armed forces, appoints the cabinet and prime minister, and has the power to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree. Since 1996, Belarus has had a two-chamber legislature, comprising a lower house, the 110-member House of Representatives, directly elected for four-year terms, and a 64-seat upper chamber, the Council of the Republic, with eight members appointed by the president and the remainder, eight each, indirectly elected by members of local soviets (councils) in the six Belorussian regions and Minsk (Mensk). The list of candidates is subject to final approval by the president. In practice, the legislature has little independent power. The political system is dominated by Lukashenko, with restrictions imposed on political opponents, journalists censored, and human rights abused.
History A Belorussian state developed in the Middle Ages around the city of Polotsk on the river Dvina. From the 13th century it became incorporated within the Slavonic Grand Duchy of Lithuania and from 1569 there was union with Poland.
Brief independence Belarus was brought into the Russian Empire in the late 18th century and from the later 19th century there was an upsurge in national consciousness. Amid the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, an independent Belorussian National Republic was declared in 1918, but failed to receive international recognition. Instead, a Belorussian Soviet Republic was established in 1919, with some loss of territory to Poland.
Nationalist revival National culture and language were encouraged until the Soviet dictator Stalin launched a Russification drive, with more than 100,000 people, predominantly writers and intellectuals, being executed between 1937 and 1941. Under the terms of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, Belarus was reunified, but then suffered severely under German invasion and occupation 1941–44. Russification resumed in the 1960s and continued into the mid-1980s, when glasnost brought a revival of national culture. A Popular Front, demanding greater autonomy, was established in February 1989. In the wake of the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which forced the resettlement of several hundred thousand people, the Belorussian Ecological Union (BEU) had been formed. Both the Popular Front and BEU contested the March-April 1990 Belorussian supreme soviet elections under the Democratic Bloc banner, capturing more than a quarter of the seats. In response, Belorussian was re-established as the republic's official state language from September 1990.
Independence achieved Belarus's communist president, Nikolai Dementei, supported the attempted coup against President Gorbachev in Moscow in August 1991. When it failed, Dementei resigned. Belarus's independence was declared in August 1991 and the activities of the Communist Party suspended. In September 1991 the supreme soviet voted to adopt the name of Republic of Belarus and elected Stanislav Shushkevich, an advocate of democratic reform, as its chair, which also made him state president. Shushkevich played an important role in the creation in December 1991 of a new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the confederal successor to the USSR, with Minsk chosen as the CIS's early centre. In the same month, Belarus was formally acknowledged as independent by the USA and granted diplomatic recognition. It had been a member of the United Nations since its foundation in 1945.
Economy and armed forces Belarus was cautious in its implementation of market-centred economic reform, with privatization and price liberalization introduced very gradually and ex-communists continuing to dominate its government. It remained heavily dependent upon Russia for industrial raw materials. In May 1992, Belarus and Russia (as a single signatory), along with the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, signed protocols with the USA agreeing to comply with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and to return all tactical nuclear weapons, inherited from the USSR, to Russia for destruction. In February 1993 parliament formally ratified the START I treaty and voted to adhere to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. In return for financial and technical aid from the USA, Belarus agreed to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and its last nuclear warhead was transferred to Russia in 1996.
New constitution brings Lukashenko to power The Communist Party, supported by Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, re-established itself within the republic during 1993, and in January 1994, despite opposition from President Shushkevich, an agreement on eventual monetary union with Russia was signed. Shushkevich was later dismissed by parliament.
A new democratic-pluralist constitution came into force in March 1994 and presidential elections were held in July 1994. They brought to power Aleksandr Lukashenko, a pro-Russian populist, who defeated Kebich. In the same month, Mikhail Chigir replaced Kebich as prime minister.
Under Lukashenko, market-centred economic reforms continued, but at a slow pace, with moves to privatization halted and with collective and state farms continuing to cover four-fifths of agricultural land. Instead, Lukashenko's priorities were to bring the country closer to Russia and establish his own dominance over the political system and the state-owned media and security services. In February 1995 a friendship and cooperation pact was signed with Russia. From April Popular Front deputies staged hunger strikes in opposition to President Lukashenko's plan to seek increased presidential powers. Parliament was dissolved and in national referenda, held in May 1995, voters approved strengthening of the president's powers and restoration of Russian as an equal official language; they also backed plans for future economic integration with Russia. The concurrent parliamentary elections were marked by apathy among the voters, with turnout falling below the required 50%, and repeat elections being held in December 1995. A communist-dominated legislature was returned. In April 1996 an agreement on economic union was signed with Russia in an effort to bolster Belarus's weak economy.
1996 referendum In November 1996 Lukashenko claimed victory in his campaign to acquire autocratic powers through a referendum. According to government officials, 70% of the electorate supported his proposals to change the constitution. However, the poll was riddled with flaws, and was considered by many to be illegal. Unhindered by international criticism, Lukashenko made it clear that he intended to act on the referendum, which gave him de facto control of the constitutional court and the electoral commission and a greater influence over a new parliament, and extended his term by two years, to five years. The Supreme Council's referendum, which included proposals to abolish the presidency, was rejected. Prime Minister Chygir, who disagreed with Lukashenko's referendum, resigned and was replaced by his deputy, Syargey Ling. Four Constitutional Court judges also resigned in protest.
In January 1997, Belarus's observer status in the Council of Europe was suspended and in April a treaty was signed with Russia providing for closer links, but falling short of union. In October 1997 the Council of the Republic, the upper chamber of the legislature, rejected Lukashenko's proposed restrictions on the media; his proposals included the closure of any media outlet producing material defaming the president. In November 1997, on the first anniversary of the controversial referendum, there were large rallies in Minsk by pro- and anti-Lukashenko forces. At the same time, 100 leading members of the intelligentsia signed a pro-democracy manifesto, ‘Charter '97’, consciously modelled on the Charter '77 which helped spearhead the drive for democracy in Czechoslovakia.
Belarus rouble devalued Between March 1997 and March 1998 the Belarus rouble halved in value. In November 1998, as shortages of food and consumer goods increased, with food rationing imposed in all regions, President Lukashenko threatened to carry out an extensive government reshuffle if there was no rapid improvement. In September 1998 around 30 left-wing and centrist parties formed a new bloc, the Belorussian People's/Patriotic Union, which supported President Lukashenko.
Opposition to President Lukashenko There was a renewed crackdown on the opposition party in September 1999, with increased restrictions on rallies, the indictment of the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Mikhas Chygir on charges of abuse of office, and the disappearance of the deputy speaker of the opposition body, Viktar Hanchar. The main opposition movement, the Belorussian Popular Front (BPF), split when supporters of the exiled leader, Zyanon Paznyak, formed a breakaway Conservative Christian Party (CCP). Despite the blows to the opposition's cause, a large freedom march took place in the capital, Minsk, in October 1999. With 15,000 people calling for President Lukashenko's resignation and opposing a proposed union with Russia, it was the largest opposition demonstration since 1996. It was broken up by police, who arrested 93 demonstrators, including the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Mikalai Statkevich. Another anti-Lukashenko march took place in March 2000, which came just weeks after Lukashenko had dismissed Prime Minister Syargey Ling and replaced him with Russian-born mayor of Minsk, Uladzimir Yarmoshyn.
The parliamentary elections of October 2000 were not free and fair and resulted in Lukashenko's supporters winning 81 of the 110 seats in the lower house. A popular opposition movement, ‘For A New Belarus’, was formed in May 2001 by groups opposed to Lukashenko's re-election. It was led by Vasily Leonov, a former agriculture minister who had been imprisoned in 1997. However, in September 2001, Lukashenko was re-elected with 76% of the vote. Critics, including the country's opposition, claimed the victory was the result of systematic electoral fraud. International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said there had been fundamental flaws in the electoral process, although it was calculated that Lukashenko would have probably won the election anyway, but with only 40–50% of the vote. In October 2001, the former housing minister Henadz Navitsky was appointed prime minister, following a nomination by President Lukashenko. He was replaced in July 2003 by Sergei Sidorsky.
Sham elections 2004 to 2010 In October 2004, Belarus held further parliamentary elections, in which no opposition candidates won a seat, and a referendum, which approved a change in the constitution to allow Lukashenko to run for a further presidential term. International observers viewed both polls as not free and fair.
There was further vote rigging in the March 2006 presidential election, which Lukashenko won with 83% of the vote on a turnout claimed at 93%. No independent observers were allowed to watch the count. In July 2006, an opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, was imprisoned for five and a half years for allegedly inciting disorder in post-election demonstrations. In October 2006, Aleksandr Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.
Lukashenko's increasing authoritarianism both fomented internal unrest and led to Belarus becoming internationally isolated. In April 2006, the USA and the European Union imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and in May 2007 the United Nations rejected its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Pro-Lukashenko candidates again won all the seats in the September 2008 and September 2012 parliamentary elections, and in December 2010 Lukashenko was re-elected president, with 80% of the vote. Vote-rigging was alleged again and an opposition rally in Minsk a day later was broken up violently by riot police who arrested over 500 of the 40,000 protesters. A week after the election, Mikhail Myasnikovich was appointed prime minister. He was replaced in December 2014 by Andrei Kobyakov.
In 2010, Belarus-Russian relations deteriorated briefly over the issue of energy prices. But in 2014, the tensions between NATO and Russia over the Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea, brought Belarus and Russia closer together. In March 2014, Lukashenko asked Russia to deploy extra military aircraft in Belarus and in September 2014 the OSCE-mediated ceasefire to the conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels was signed in Minsk.
Belarus – A Country Study
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