U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Belarus, March 1996
Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Belarus
Area: 207,600 sq. km. (80,100 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Kansas.
Terrain: Generally flat and contains much marshland.
Climate: Cold winters, cool and moist summers, transitional between
continental and maritime.
Nationality: Noun--Belarusian(s). Adjective--Belarusian.
Population: 10.4 million.
Population growth rate: 0.3%.
Ethnic groups: Byelorussian (78%), Russian (13%), Polish, Ukrainian,
Religions: Eastern Orthodox, other.
Languages: Belarusian (official), Russian (predominant working
Health: Infant mortality rate--19/1,000. Life expectancy--71 years.
Work force (4.9 million): Industry and construction--40%. Agriculture
and forestry--22%. Health, science, and education--16%. Other--22%.
Constitution: Adopted 1994.
Independence: 1991 (from Soviet Union).
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister (head of
government), Council of Ministers (cabinet). Legislative--unicameral
Supreme Soviet (parliament). Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Six voblasti and one municipality.
Political parties: Belarusian Popular Front, Party of Popular Accord,
Union of Belarusian Entrepreneurs, Belarusian Party of Communists,
Belarus Peasant Party, Belarusian Socialist Party, Belarusian Social
Democrat Party, Agrarian Party of Belarus, United Democratic Party of
Belarus, Independent Trade Unions.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (1994): $53 billion.
GDP growth rate (1994): -20%.
Per capita GDP (1994): $5,100.
Natural resources: Forest land, peat deposits, small amounts of oil and
Agriculture: Products--grain, potatoes and other vegetables, meat, milk.
Industry: Types--machinery and transport equipment, chemical
products, fabrics, and consumer goods.
Trade: Exports--(about 60% go to CIS countries and 40% to non-CIS
countries; for 1994, exports to countries outside the former Soviet
Union were $968 million): machinery and transport equipment,
chemicals, foodstuffs. Major markets--Russia, Ukraine, Poland,
Bulgaria. Imports--(about 70% come from CIS countries and 30% from
non-CIS countries; for 1994, imports from countries outside the former
Soviet Union were $534 million): fuel, natural gas, industrial raw
materials, textiles, sugar. Major suppliers--Russia, Ukraine, Poland.
Exchange rate (March 1996): 12,900 rubels=U.S.$1.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 brought an end
to the Cold War and created 15 new countries with which to establish
bilateral relations. The United States opened an embassy in Belarus'
capital, Minsk, in February 1992. The first U.S. Ambassador was
David Heywood Swartz, who assumed his post on August 25, 1992--
the first anniversary of Belarusian independence. Kenneth Spencer
Yalowitz succeeded Ambassador Swartz in November 1994.
U.S.-Belarusian Economic Relations
In February 1993, a bilateral trade treaty guaranteeing reciprocal most-
favored-nation status entered into force. In January 1994, the U.S. and
Belarus signed a bilateral investment treaty, which has been ratified by
Belarus and is awaiting ratification by the U.S. Senate. In February
1996, a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty was initialed. A formal signing
and ratification by both countries' legislatures are pending.
Negotiations are continuing on a treaty for the avoidance of double
An Overseas Private Investment Corporation agreement was signed in
June 1992 and is in force. Belarus is eligible for Export-Import Bank
short-term financing insurance for U.S. investments. The International
Monetary Fund (IMF) granted standby credit in September 1995, but
Belarus has fallen off the program and did not receive the second
tranche of funding, which had been scheduled for regular intervals
Belarus welcomes joint ventures with American companies,
particularly in computer software, electrical components,
telecommunications equipment, and consumer goods. A 1991 foreign
investment law provides protection from nationalization. However,
rubel inconvertibility and other restrictions, such as on land
continue to hamper investment opportunities.
U.S. Assistance to Belarus
As of September 1995, the U.S. had provided about $73.8 million in
humanitarian aid shipments, $229 million in U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) food assistance, and $19 million in technical
assistance to Belarus. Current U.S. assistance priorities in Belarus are
focused on programs that support defense industry conversion (see
Defense and Military Issues), provide support for economic
restructuring and small-scale democracy-building efforts, and assist in
At its inception, the U.S. assistance program in Belarus was oriented
toward providing humanitarian relief. In January 1992, the U.S.
initiated the Coordinating Conference on Assistance to the New
Independent States (NIS) in response to the humanitarian emergencies
facing these states. The resulting Operation Provide Hope, coordinated
by the Department of Defense, provided desperately needed food, fuel,
medicine, and shelter. The U.S. shipped to Belarus pharmaceuticals and
medical supplies for areas affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear
disaster, provided the country with Department of Defense excess
medicines and supplies, and shipped components of a Department of
Defense acute care hospital to several Minsk hospitals. Another
significant shipment of aid--by airlift and by train transport--is
scheduled for the 10th anniversary of Chornobyl in April 1996.
USDA has provided concessional loans to Belarus for the purchase of
U.S. agricultural commodities and provided corn and other
commodities through the Food for Progress program. In addition, the
country has received soybean meal and feed wheat through the Food
for Peace program and Section 416 (b) of the Agricultural Act,
The U.S. technical assistance program now targets areas of maximum
impact in the promotion of a market economy and a democratic
society. U.S.-funded programs have helped carry out small-scale
privatization in three cities in Belarus, where over 50% of communal
enterprises have been privatized. (As of February 1996, however, less
than 10% of all Belarusian firms had been privatized.) Technical
assistance and training to selected Belarusian medical institutions
through a hospital partnership program have improved the quality and
availability of services to control and treat widespread, critical
health problems. Advisers in areas as diverse as issuance of government
securities to individual entrepreneurship to agribusiness have worked to
introduce new, market-oriented concepts to their Belarusian
The U.S. has provided rule-of-law and law enforcement assistance to
Belarus. An advisor on rule-of-law issues has been resident in Minsk
since 1992 and has provided advice on the drafting of legislation;
development of a cadre of lawyers, targeting law students in particular;
and other issues. On law enforcement, U.S. experts are training
Belarusian counterparts in modern techniques of combating financial
crimes, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking. In addition,
Belarusian officials have participated in training and exchange
programs on rule-of-law, copyright legislation, independent media, and
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--John Boris
Political/Economic Officers--Anthony Godfrey and Tamara Fitzgerald
Consular Officer--Janine Boiarsky
Administrative Officer--Gregory Slotta
Regional Security Officer--Michael Wilkins
Agricultural Officer--Mary Revelt (resident in Moscow, Russia)
Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--Janet Demiray
The U.S. embassy in Minsk, Belarus is at Starovilenskaya #46; tel:
375-172-31-5000; fax: 375-172-34-7853.
Belarus has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and the first
recorded settlements date back to the 6th century AD. The princes of
Kiev ruled Belarus until the invasion of the Mongols in 1240, when
most of its towns were destroyed.
The region came under the control of powerful Lithuanians and, in
1386, under the Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellonian Dynasty. For centuries,
the Poles and the Muscovites struggled bitterly over Belarus. In 1772,
Catherine the Great gained control over part of the country, and, by
1795, Russia ruled all of Belarus.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the country again became a
European battleground. Napoleon passed through Belarus--and fought
there--in 1812, and the Germans fought the Soviets on Belarusian
territory in World War I. Although a Soviet Socialist Republic was
proclaimed in January 1919, fighting with Poland continued until 1921.
Belarus suffered heavy losses in World War II, when some 2.2 million
inhabitants perished. The postwar period saw a significant rebirth--
especially in the economic sphere. On August 25, 1991, Belarus
declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus had a relatively well-
developed industrial base; it retained this industrial base following
the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The country also has a broad agricultural
base and a high education level. Among the former republics of the
Soviet Union, it has one of the highest standards of living. But
Belarusians face the difficult challenge of moving from a state-run
economy with high priority on military production to a civilian, free-
The government is developing plans to privatize local and state
enterprises through a voucher system, but progress has been slow. A
Council of Ministers' decree allows privatization to proceed until
Belarus' Supreme Soviet passes legislation. President Lukashenko
signed the 1996 privatization plan in January of this year. The
government has continued to subsidize foodstuffs and other basic
goods to prevent social strife. The economy remains dependent on
Russia for energy supplies and raw materials. About 80% of Belarus'
products are exported to Russia.
Economic activity in Belarus has stagnated, as businesses have awaited
the outcome of talks on a monetary union with Russia, including
negotiations over an exchange rate between Belarusian rubels and
Russian rubles. Belarus has sought to join the Russian ruble zone in
order to stabilize its currency and boost its trade links with Russia.
The monthly rate of inflation in Belarus reached 40% in February 1994
but by May 1995 had dropped to 3.6%. An agreement on a monetary union
will eventually be part of a planned April 1996 bilateral treaty that
could bring about economic union between Belarus and Russia (see
Belarus has established ministries of energy, forestry, land
reclamation, and water resources and state committees to deal with
ecology and safety procedures in the nuclear power industry. The most
serious environmental issue in Belarus results from the accident at the
1986 Chornobyl nuclear power plant. About 70% of the nuclear fallout
from the plant landed on Belarusian territory, and about 25% of the land
is considered uninhabitable. But government restrictions on residence
and use of contaminated land are not strictly enforced. As noted, the
government receives U.S. assistance in its efforts to deal with the
consequences of the radiation.
Belarus has long been a member of the UN Economic Commission for
Europe (ECE) and has been active in its environmental meetings. The
country has signed key ECE conventions on long-range transboundary
environmental issues, but implementation has suffered from a lack of
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Belarus is making gradual progress in establishing a democratic
system. Under the planned April 1996 bilateral treaty (see Foreign
Relations), Belarus' political structure may become joined in some
form with that of Russia over the coming years, although no such
changes appear imminent.
Following Belarus' declaration of independence from the Soviet Union
in 1991, most power passed to the Council of Ministers (cabinet),
whose decrees have the force of law. A new constitution took effect on
March 30, 1994. It established for the first time a presidency and a
constitutional court. Presidential elections in July 1994 resulted in
the seating of Aleksander Lukashenko as Belarus' first president.
Belarus' Supreme Soviet (parliament) is technically the highest branch
of government. Its then-chairman--elected to that post in January 1994
by the parliament following a vote of "no-confidence" in his
predecessor--was considered head of state until President Lukashenko's
July 1994 election. Following a dormant period in 1995--during which
it lacked the constitutionally mandated quorum because not enough
deputies garnered the required percentage of votes--the Supreme Soviet
was able to meet on January 9, 1996. Semyon Sharetsky, founder of the
Agrarian Party, became chairman and parliamentary speaker on
January 11, 1996.
Both Belarus' Council of Ministers and its Supreme Soviet are
dominated by a coalition of former members of the Communist and
Agrarian Parties. In February 1993, the Supreme Soviet repealed an
August 1991 resolution that had temporarily suspended the activity of
the Communist Party. The principal opposition party is the nationalist
organization, the Belarusian Popular Front.
Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful
assembly, religions, and movement all increased in 1995. Despite the
passage of a press law in 1994 prohibiting the existence of a press
monopoly, the government maintained a virtual monopoly over the
press since it owns nearly all printing and broadcasting facilities and
manages the distribution of all print media through official outlets.
There are, however, some private newspapers printed in Belarusian and
Freedom of assembly is restricted under former Soviet law, which is
still valid. It requires an application at least 10 days in advance of
the event. The local government must respond positively or negatively at
least five days prior to the event. Public demonstrations occurred
frequently in 1995, but always under government oversight.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government
generally respects this right in practice. The majority of Belarusians
are Eastern Orthodox Christians, and the church has been criticized by
nationalists for its ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Citizens are free to travel within the country. But Belarusians must
register their place of residence and may not move without official
permission. The Ministry of the Interior has proposed legislation
abolishing both regulations.
The constitution provides for the right of workers--except state
security and military personnel--to voluntarily form and join
independent unions and to carry out actions in defense of workers'
rights, including the right to strike. In practice, however, these
rights are limited. The two major independent trade unions are the Free
Trade Union of Belarus and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union.
Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister--Mikhail Chigir
Foreign Minister--Vladimir Senko
Ambassador to the U.S.--Syarghei Martynov
Ambassador to the UN--Aleksander Sychov
Belarus' embassy in the U.S. is at 1619 New Hampshire Ave., NW,
Washington, DC 20009; tel: 202-986-1604; fax: 202-986-1805.
DEFENSE AND MILITARY ISSUES
In Lisbon on May 23, 1992, the United States signed a protocol to the
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Belarus, Russia,
Kazakstan, and Ukraine (those states on whose territory strategic
nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union are located). The protocol
makes the four states party to the START Treaty and commits them to
reductions in strategic nuclear weapons within the seven-year period
provided for in the treaty.
On February 4, 1993, the Belarusian parliament ratified the START
Treaty and voted to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state. The chairman of the Belarusian
parliament deposited Belarus' instrument of accession to the NPT with
President Clinton on July 22, 1993, at the White House.
The U.S. has signed six agreements with Belarus to provide more than
$75 million in Nunn-Lugar assistance. These agreements call for
providing Belarus with nuclear accident emergency response
equipment; a government-to-government communications link for
transmission of START and intermediate-range nuclear forces
notifications; expanded military-to-military contacts; and assistance
for defense conversion, environmental restoration, and establishment of
an effective export control system.
On October 30, 1992, Belarus signed the Conventional Armed Forces
in Europe (CFE) Treaty to reduce and numerically limit key categories
of military equipment, such as tanks, artillery, armored combat
vehicles, combat aircraft, and combat helicopters, and to provide for
destruction of weaponry in excess of those limits. Although Belarus did
not comply with the CFE Treaty deadline of November 1995,
destructions were proceeding in accordance with the treaty in early
1996. President Lukashenko pledged publicly in March 1996 that
destruction would be complete by the end of 1996.
Belarus is actively working to become a full member of the
international community. Under an arrangement with the former
U.S.S.R., Belarus was an original member of the United Nations. It
also is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS--a
group of 12 former Soviet republics) and its customs union, the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO's
Partnership for Peace, the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, the
International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.
The government has supported CIS and OSCE efforts to resolve
regional disputes. Minsk serves as the headquarters of the CIS, and
President Lukashenko took an active role in the January 1996 CIS
summit in Moscow.
On March 29, 1996, Belarus, Russia, Kazakstan, and Kyrgyzstan
signed an accord calling for closer political, economic, trade, and
cultural integration, along the lines of the EU. It envisions a common
market of goods and services, unified transport, joint communications,
and a common currency. The agreement is valid for five years and can
Belarus and Russia announced plans on March 23, 1996 to sign a treaty
on April 2 to form a bilateral union. Such an arrangement would be the
closest any former Soviet republic has come to merging again with
Russia. Although the April 1996 treaty would tie them more closely
together culturally, would include joint political bodies, and might
mean economic union, each nation would retain its sovereignty.
Implementation of the treaty's provisions likely would take several
years to complete.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings
are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans
avoid travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for
all countries and include information on immigration practices,
currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in
the subject country. They can be obtained by telephone at (202) 647-
5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the Consular Affairs
Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a modem with
standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications on obtaining
passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available from the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may
be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202)
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking
water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health
Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-
95-8280, price $14.00) is available from the U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal
Government Officials" listing in this publication).
Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to
register at the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials"
listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you
in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the
CABB provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and
helpful information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of
charge to anyone with a personal computer, modem,
telecommunications software, and a telephone line.
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the
Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S.
foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes
Background Notes; Dispatch, the official weekly magazine of U.S.
foreign policy; daily press briefings; directories of key officers of
foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN is accessible three ways on the
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly
basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on
the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an
array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present.
Priced at $80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs
(MSDOS and Macintosh compatible) and are available from the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O.
Box 37194, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800
or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S.
Government Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387.
For general BBS information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department
of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related
information, including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on
the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB
Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
Background Notes Series -- Published by the United States Department
of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication
-- Washington, DC -- Series Editor: Marilyn J. Bremner
Belarus -- Department of State Publication 10344 -- March 1996
This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without
permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402.
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