Belarus: Basic Facts
CRS Report for Congress
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Belarus: Country Background Report
Specialist in European Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
This short report provides information on Belarus’s history, political and economic
situation, human rights record, foreign policy, and U.S. relations with Belarus. It will be
updated when necessary.
Belarus at a GlanceBelarusians are descendants of
Land Area: 80,154 sq. mi., slightly smallerSlavic tribes that migrated into theregion in the ninth century. The
than Kansas.beginnings of their development as a
distinct people can be traced from
Population: 10 million (2000 estimate)the 13th century, when the Mongols
conquered Russia and parts of
Ethnic Composition: 77.9% Belarusian,Ukraine, while Belarusians became
13.2% Russian, 4.1% Polish and 2.9%part of (and played a key role in) the
Ukrainian.Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1569,
the Grand Duchy merged with
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): $12.67Poland, ushering in over two
billion in 1999 (EIU estimate at marketcenturies of Polish rule. Poland itself
exchange rate). was divided in the late 18th century,
and Belarusian territories fell to
Political Leaders: President: AleksandrRussia.
Lukashenko; Prime Minister: Vladimir
Yermoshin; Foreign Minister: Mikhail Kvotsov;Ruling powers (i.e. Poles and
Defense Minister: Leonid Maltsev Russians) tried to culturally
Sources: World Bank, International Monetaryassimilate Belarusians and pushed
Fund, Economist Intelligence Unit.them to the lowest rungs of the
socio-economic ladder. As a result,
Belarus did not develop a substantial
national movement until the late 19th
century. In the chaos in the final months of World War I, the Belarusian Democratic
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Republic was established in March 1918, with German military assistance. After the defeat
of Germany in November 1918, the Red Army seized the country and established the
Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in January 1919. In 1922, Belarus became one of
the republics of the U.S.S.R. Its territory almost doubled when Stalin annexed parts of
Poland to Belarus in 1940 as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Hitler’s Germany.
(After the war, part of this territory was returned to Poland.) Belarus was devastated by
World War II, which killed 25% of its population. Until the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
at the end of 1991, Belarus’ leadership strongly supported maintaining the Soviet Union.
In a nationwide referendum in March 1991, 83% of the Belarusian electorate voted in
favor of preservation of the Union. Belarus was one of the founding members of the
Commonwealth of Independent States.
Virtually all political power in Belarus is in the hands of strongman Aleksandr
Lukashenko. In Belarus's July 1994 presidential elections, Lukashenko, who was running
on a populist, anti-corruption platform, crushed Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, taking
80.34% of the vote. Conflict between a new Belarusian parliament elected in 1995 and
an increasingly authoritarian president led Lukashenko to call a national referendum on
November 24, 1996 to approve a new constitution drafted by the Belarusian leader.
Under the new charter, Lukashenko’s original five-year term would be extended until
2001. He would also gain the right to appoint half of the constitutional court and the
electoral commission (both of which have shown some independence from Lukashenko
in the past). The new constitution would create a smaller, weaker, two-chamber
parliament, some of whose members would be appointed by Lukashenko. Lukashenko’s
plan provoked strong opposition in the parliament and anti-Lukashenko demonstrations
in Minsk. However, Lukashenko prevailed in the referendum by an overwhelming
majority of over 70% of the vote. Lukashenko opponents, including the former head of
the electoral commission, claimed the vote was marked by fraud. Lukashenko signed his
constitution into law and dissolved the old parliament. The Council of Europe, the
European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) condemned the November 1996 referendum as illegitimate and unfair.
In October 2000, Belarus held parliamentary elections. Many opposition figures
refused to participate, after the Lukashenko regime refused to allow them access to state-
run electronic media or participate in the central or local electoral commissions. Once
again, the Council of Europe, the EU and the OSCE strongly criticized the elections as not
free and fair. The OSCE and Western governments have demanded that Lukashenko
address the institutional weakness of the parliament as compared to the vast powers held
by Lukashenko and his administration.
Belarus held presidential elections on September 9, 2001. Belarusian opposition
groups chose trade union leader Vladimir Goncharik as their joint candidate to run against
Lukashenko. Lukashenko was declared the winner, with 75.6% of the vote over
Hancharyk, with 15.4%. OSCE observers condemned the vote as not free and fair, due
to a lack of media freedom, harassment of opposition candidates and supporters, a lack of
independence and transparency in the counting of votes, and other factors.
While Lukashenko may not have won a free and fair vote, nevertheless he appears
to retain significant support among some sectors of the population. In a May 2001 survey
commissioned by the State Department, 42% of those polled said that they would vote for
Lukashenko, if elections were imminent. No opposition leader scored higher than 2.5%.
Lukashenko’s support is strongest among voters over 60, those with less than a secondary
education, and those living in rural areas. He enjoys less support among those under 30,
among those with college degrees, and residents of the capital, Minsk. One clue to this
social split in support for Lukashenko may be the fact that, while two-thirds of those
polled said economic conditions in Belarus were “fairly bad” or “bad,” 91% gave1
Lukashenko credit for ensuring that pensions were paid on time. While younger people
are dismayed at the lack of economic opportunity in Lukashenko’s Belarus, many elderly
voters may be content that they can eke out a predictable, if very modest, existence.
Lukashenko also espouses Soviet-era values (social egalitarianism, suspicion of the West)
that are popular with elderly voters.
Human Rights and Freedoms
The 2000 State Department Human Rights report said that Belarus’s human rights
record is “very poor.” It notes that government security forces arbitrarily arrested and
detained citizens, beat detainees, and monitored the activities of opposition politicians and
other segments of the population. The government harassed independent media and
forced them to close. The government used force to break up political demonstrations.
The judiciary is not independent. The State Department report notes that trafficking in
women is a problem in Belarus.
One of the most disturbing human rights issues in Belarus is the fate of former
parliament chairman Viktor Gonchar, his associate Anatoly Krasovsky, former Interior
Minister Yuri Zakharenko, and Russian television cameraman Dimitry Zavadsky. All of
them disappeared in 1999; all had been involved in opposition activities or criticized the
Lukashenko regime. Gonchar disappeared in September 1999, hours after Lukashenko
delivered a speech ordering the security services to crack down on “opposition scum.”
In July 2001, two investigators from the Belarusian prosecutor’s office charged that the
four men were killed by death squads created by the Lukashenko regime. A State
Department spokesman said that the United States found these charges to be “credible.”2
In February 1998, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
opened a mission in Belarus. The mission's task is to monitor Belarus's progress toward
democracy and respect for its obligations as a member of the OSCE, and advise Minsk on
how to improve its record in these areas. The mission has had very limited success in
persuading Lukashenko to move toward a more democratic political system. During the
September 2001 presidential election campaign, Lukashenko accused the mission of being
a nest of spies aimed at overthrowing him.
1 U.S. Department of State, Office of Research, “Belarusians Divide By Age Over Lukashenko and
Their Country’s Future,” July 10, 2001.
2 U.S. State Department press statement, “Department Officials Meet with Wives of ‘Disappeared’
Belarusian Politicians,” July 18, 2001.
Belarus has one of the most unreformed economies in the former Soviet Union.
Although some small enterprises have been privatized, the industrial and agricultural
sectors of the economy remain almost entirely in government hands. The private sector
made up only 20% of GDP in 1999. Reliance on lax fiscal and monetary policies to prop
up inefficient state-owned industry and agriculture has led to an increase in inflation,
despite government wage and price controls. Average annual consumer price inflation was
estimated at 168% for 2000. Belarus’s currency, the rubel, has plummeted nearly 40% in
value against the U.S. dollar since 1998. Cumulative direct foreign investment in Belarus
remains low, a mere $290 million through February 2001. Economic output has been
artificially sustained by government subsidies; real GDP grew by 6% in 2000. These
measures have also permitted Belarus to keep official unemployment levels at just over
have also gradually increased, although they remain at very low levels. Belarus is
burdened by the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Chernobyl spewed
large amounts of radiation over one-fifth of the country’s arable land.
The Belarusian economy has been propped up by cheap energy imports from Russia,
as well as the ability to export its products to Russia under advantageous terms. The
Russian natural gas firm Gazprom has accepted Belarusian goods in exchange for gas
deliveries and subsidized prices. Belarus nevertheless has managed to accumulate debts,
even under this favorable arrangement. In June 2001, the Russian government announced
that it was releasing $32 million of a $100 million loan to Belarus to stabilize its currency.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank cut off loans to Belarus in 1996 due to
the country's lack of reform efforts. In April 2001, the IMF started a program to monitor
Belarus’s economy in cooperation with the Belarusian government. In September 2001,
the World Bank approved a $22 million social infrastructure project.
Foreign Policy and Defense
Lukashenko's main foreign policy priority has been increasing integration with Russia.
Lukashenko strongly favors close political, economic and military ties with Russia, which
he sees as a way to help Belarus surmount its economic difficulties and as a natural
development for two peoples with a common history. Since 1995, Lukashenko has
signed several agreement and treaties with Russia to establish a “union” between the two
states. The most recent treaty was signed in December 1999. Its calls for steps toward
forming with Moscow an economic union with a common market, currency, monetary,
budget, tax and customs systems. The treaty calls on the two countries to coordinate their
policies in a wide variety of other fields, including foreign policy, defense, human rights,
social policy, and many other areas. The treaty calls for the setting up of Union
institutions, including a Supreme State Council that includes the heads of state, a joint
Council of Ministers, and a joint parliament. The treaty makes clear that both states will
retain their own sovereignty and national institutions.
However, Russian-Belarusian integration has remained largely rhetorical so far. The
main obstacle to integration is Belarus's poor economic reform record and the reluctance
3 EIU Country Profile, Belarus, May 31, 2001.
of Russian economic reformers to provide additional, massive subsidies to Belarus's ailing
economy. Unless Belarus engages in economic reform along Russian lines, integration may
continue to lag. Russian firms have reportedly opened discussions with Belarusian leaders
about acquiring key Belarusian enterprises, if the Lukashenko regime decides to privatize
them in the near future.
The Belarusian leader has moved his country's defense and foreign policies into close
alignment with Russia's. Lukashenko strongly opposes NATO enlargement and was a
fierce critic of NATO air strikes against Serbia in 1999. A small number of Russian troops
remain in Belarus, in part to run a naval radio station and an early warning radar station.
In 2000, Russian strategic bombers returned to bases in Belarus, but no nuclear weapons
are reportedly stored there. The union treaty calls for a joint defense doctrine, joint arms
procurement and a regional group of Belarusian and Russian forces, but progress toward
these goals has been slow.
U. S. Policy
United States recognized independent Belarus on December 25, 1991. President
Clinton, during a January 1994 visit to Belarus, praised Belarus for its commitment to a
non-nuclear status. U.S. officials haled the removal of all nuclear weapons from Belarus
in November 1996. However, U.S.-Belarus relations deteriorated as Lukashenko become
increasingly authoritarian. A State Department spokesman sharply criticized Lukashenko’s
November 1996 referendum, saying it was not conducted in a “free or fair” manner and
that it “lacked legitimacy.” The United States and other Western governments do not
recognize the legitimacy of the new constitution and legislature approved in 1996, or of
Lukashenko’s tenure as President after the expiration of his original term in July 1999. In
March 1997, a State Department spokesman announced a policy of "selective
engagement" with Belarus on issues of U.S. national interests. In other areas, "we'll have
very limited dealings with them,” he said. In July 2000, the United States suspended
Belarus’s participation in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which
permits poor countries to export goods to the United States at reduced tariff rates, due to
the country’s failure to respect internationally-recognized worker rights.
According to State Department data, from FY 1992 to FY 2000, the United States
obligated $373.74 million in aid to Belarus. Of this total, $218.2 million was in food aid,
$74.88 million in Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) aid to help remove nuclear
weapons from Belarusian soil, and $31.15 million aid to promote political and economic
reform in Belarus. In FY 2001, the Administration has budgeted $10 million in aid to
support political and economic reform in Belarus, and requested $11 million for the same
purpose in FY 2002.
U.S. officials have demanded that the Belarusian government bring to justice those
involved in the disappearances of the four members of the opposition in 1999. The United
States reportedly provided advice and assistance to the Belarusian opposition during the
September 2001 presidential election campaign, on the model of its aid to the Serbian
opposition’s successful campaign to unseat Milosevic. After Lukashenko’s victory, the
Administration sharply criticized Lukashenko, charging that had “stolen” the elections and
calling him “Europe’s last dictator.” The Administration statement added that the United
States would not recognize the legitimacy of the vote or of the Lukashenko regime.
However, some European members of the election monitoring delegations, while noting
that the elections were not free and fair, expressed the opinion that the current Western
policy of isolating Belarus may actually be strengthening Lukashenko’s dictatorship, rather
than weakening it. They called for greater Western engagement with Belarus as a better
way to encourage it to move toward democracy and free markets. Belarus condemned the
September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and offered its cooperation in the fight
against terrorism, but has ruled out participation in military actions.
Congress has strongly condemned the Lukashenko regime for its human rights
record. In 2000, Congress passed H. Con. Res. 304. H. Con. Res. 304 condemned the
Lukashenko regime for the disappearances of the four opposition members, the jailing of
other opposition supporters, and many other undemocratic actions. It called on the
Administration to provide assistance to the Belarusian opposition, independent media and
trade unions, and civil society groups; and to raise with Russia the issue of its financial and
other support to the “illegitimate” Lukashenko regime. It also called on the Administration
to report to Congress on the political and economic situation in Belarus, the steps taken
by the Administration to persuade Russia to stop helping Lukashenko, and the status of
Russia-Belarus military integration. In October 2000, the Senate passed S. Con. Res. 153,
which condemned the October 2000 parliamentary elections in Belarus as not free and fair,
and described the new parliament as illegitimate. It also sharply criticized many other
undemocratic actions undertaken by the Lukashenko regime.