U.S. Department of State 
Background Notes: Belarus, March 1996 
Bureau of Public Affairs 
 
 
March 1996 
Official Name: Republic of Belarus 
 
PROFILE 
 
Geography 
 
Area:  207,600 sq. km. (80,100 sq. mi.); slightly smaller than Kansas. 
Cities: Capital--Minsk. 
Terrain: Generally flat and contains much marshland. 
Climate: Cold winters, cool and moist summers, transitional between 
continental and maritime. 
 
People 
 
Nationality: Noun--Belarusian(s). Adjective--Belarusian. 
Population: 10.4 million. 
Population growth rate: 0.3%. 
Ethnic groups: Byelorussian (78%), Russian (13%), Polish, Ukrainian, 
other. 
Religions: Eastern Orthodox, other. 
Languages: Belarusian (official), Russian (predominant working 
language), other. 
Education: Literacy--97%. 
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%. 
 
Government 
 
Type: Republic. 
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. 
 
Economy 
 
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 
natural gas. 
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. 
 
U.S.-BELARUSIAN RELATIONS 
 
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 
taxation. 
 
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 
throughout 1996. 
 
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 
ownership, 
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 
social transition. 
 
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, 
respectively. 
 
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 
counterparts. 
 
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 
educational reform. 
 
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials 
 
Ambassador--Kenneth Yalowitz 
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. 
 
 
======================================== 
HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS 
 
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. 
======================================== 
 
 
ECONOMY 
 
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-
market system. 
 
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 
Foreign Relations). 
 
Environmental Issues 
 
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 
resources. 
 
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 
Russian. 
 
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 
 
President--Aleksander Lukashenko 
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. 
 
FOREIGN RELATIONS 
 
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 
be extended. 
 
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) 
647-5225. 
 
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 
Internet: 
 
Gopher: dosfan.lib.uic.edu 
URL: gopher://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ 
WWW: http://www.state.gov 
 
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. 
 
The most current Background Notes information can be found on the 
Department of State's World Wide Web site at http://www.state.gov 
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