Belarus, pronounced behl uh ROOS or byehl uh ROOS, also spelled
Byelarus, is a country in eastern Europe. Minsk is its capital and largest
The Belarusians trace their history to Kievan Rus, a state founded by East Slavs in
the 800's. Belarus became part of Lithuania in the 1300's. It passed to Poland
in the 1500's and to Russia in the late 1700's. The Russians established a Communist
government there in 1919. Belarus became a republic of the Soviet Union in
1922. It remained a Soviet republic until 1991, when it declared its independence.
Government. Under the constitution of Belarus, which became effective in 1996,
a president is head of state and has broad powers over the government. The president
appoints a prime minister, who heads the Council of Ministers.
The country's legislature consists of two houses, an upper house called the Council
of the Republic and a lower house called the House of Representatives. The council
has 64 members. The House of Representatives has 110 members.
Belarus is divided into six provinces, each named for the capital of the province:
(1) Brest, (2) Gomel, (3) Grodno, (4) Minsk, (5) Mogilev, and (6) Vitebsk. A council
elected by the voters governs each province. The president, however, appoints
regional executives, who supervise and appoint local executives. The appointed
executives control the regional and local councils.
The Constitutional Court is the highest court of Belarus. The judicial system
also includes a Supreme Court and provincial, city, and district courts.
The armed forces have about 95,000 members. Men who are 18 years of age or
older must serve 18 months.
People. More than three-fourths of the people of Belarus are ethnic
Belarusians, a Slavic people. About 13 percent are Russians. The population
also includes small groups of Poles and Ukrainians.
Belarusian, the native language, and Russian are the official languages.
Belarusian is a Slavic language that resembles Russian and Ukrainian. It is written
in the Cyrillic alphabet, the same system of writing used for Russian. Russian was
the only official language when Belarus was a part of the Soviet Union, so more people
speak Russian than Belarusian, especially in the cities.
Most Belarusian families are small, with one or two children. Most city people
live in apartments. Many of the rural people of Belarus work on large collective or
state farms, which are run by the government. Many rural people live in small wooden
houses or community housing blocks.
Most people in Belarus wear Western-style clothing. Traditional Belarusian
costumes, which are white with colorful embroidery, are worn on special occasions.
Potato and mushroom dishes are particularly popular in Belarus. Many
Belarusians also like thick stews, such hearty vegetable soups as turnip borsch, and rye
bread and oat bread. Tea and coffee are the country's most popular beverages.
Belarusians enjoy a number of recreational activities. These include soccer,
volleyball, track and field, swimming, camping, and chess.
Most Belarusians follow either an Eastern Orthodox faith or the Belarusian Catholic
religion. Belarusian Catholics are also called "Greek" Catholics or
Uniates. They follow Eastern Orthodox rituals. But they accept the authority
of the Roman Catholic pope, whereas the Orthodox faiths do not. Orthodox Christians
belong to either the Russian Orthodox Church or the Belarusian Autocephalous
(self-governing) Orthodox Church. The Belarusian Autocephalous church long promoted
Belarusian independence from the Soviet Union. As a result, it was banned from the
1920's until 1990, except for a brief period in the 1940's. Other religious groups
in Belarus include Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.
Most Belarusians finish high school, and many receive higher education. The
country has three universities, the Belarusian State University in Minsk, Gomel State
University in Gomel, and Grodno State University in Grodno. Belarus also has about
30 technical colleges or institutes.
The Belarusians are known for their weaving, straw-inlaid boxes, and other
traditional handicrafts, and for such performing arts as dancing and puppetry. The
village of Neglyubka is famous for its textiles, which arewoven in elaborate
In the early 1900's, two Belarusian poets, Ianka Kupala and Iakub Kolas, helped
promote the use of the Belarusian language in literature. Formerly, most literary
works were written in Russian or Polish.
Land. Most of the country consists of flat lowlands. Forests cover
northern Belarus. A ridge of higher ground runs from northeast to southwest in
central Belarus. The ridge includes the country's highest point, a hill called
Dzerzhinskaya Gora that rises 1,135 feet (346 meters) above sea level. Southern
Belarus is made up of marshes, swamps, and forests. This region includes a vast,
forested swamp called the Pripyat Marshes.
The chief rivers of Belarus are the Bug, the Neman (also spelled Nyoman), the
Western Dvina, and the Dnepr (also spelled Dnyapro). Belarus has over 10,000 lakes,
mostly small ones.
The forests of Belarus teem with deer, foxes, hares, minks, and squirrels.
Belarus and Poland jointly administer the Belovezha Forest (Bialowieza in Polish), a
nature preserve along the border between the two nations. This area is a remnant of
the virgin forest that covered much of Europe in prehistoric times. It has majestic
old spruces and other trees. Its rare animals include a herd of European bison, also
Climate. Belarus has cold winters and warm summers. The temperature
averages about 22 °F (-6 °C) in January, the coldest month, and about 65 °F (18 °C) in
July, the hottest. The country's annual precipitation ranges from 20 to 26 inches
(50 to 66 centimeters).
Economy. Manufacturing produces more than half of the economic output of
Belarus. The country is known for the heavy-duty trucks and tractors it
produces. Belarus also manufactures computers, engineering equipment, metal-cutting
tools, and such consumer goods as bicycles, clocks and watches, motorcycles,
refrigerators, and television sets. The country's chief chemical product is
potassium fertilizer. The forests yield many wood products, including furniture,
matches, plywood, and paper goods.
Agriculture accounts for about a fourth of the country's economic output. The
major crops include barley, flax, potatoes, rye, and sugar beets. Many farmers raise
cattle and hogs.
Belarus has only a few mineral resources. It is rich in peat, which is used for
fuel, and potassium and rock salts. Southern Belarus has coal and petroleum.
The major Belarusian exports include tractors to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and
the United States. Belarus's chief trading partners are Russia and Ukraine.
Significant trade also occurs with Austria, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, and the United
The country's transportation system includes railroad and highway networks
connecting the cities of Belaruswith other major European cities. Trains are the
most important means of long-distance travel. The country's chief airport is in
Minsk. Buses provide most of the transportation within cities. The Dnepr-Bug
Canal and other canals improve water transportation by linking many of the rivers of
Belarus with ports on the Baltic and Black seas.
About 215 daily newspapers are published in Belarus. Of those, 130 are
published in Belarusian.
History. The area that is now Belarus was inhabited by various groups of
people beginning in prehistoric times. Slavic tribes moved in by the A.D.
The Belarusians, along with the Ukrainians and Russians, trace their history to the
first East Slavic state. The state, called Kievan Rus, was formed in the
800's. Belarus made up the northwestern part of Kievan Rus. During the 900's
and 1000's, Kievan Rus was a major European political, economic, and military power.
Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian rule. In the 1200's, Mongol invaders overran
the eastern part of Kievan Rus, while Germanic tribes threatened from the west. To
protect themselves from invaders, the Belarusians formed a military alliance with
neighboring Lithuania. The alliance led to Belarus becoming part of Lithuania, which
grew into a large and powerful state.
In 1386, the grand duke of Lithuania married the queen of Poland and began to rule
both Lithuania and Poland as king. Lithuanian-Polish kings ruled the two states for
nearly 200 years until Lithuania--including Belarus--merged with Poland in 1569.
Between 1772 and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Poland. Russia received
much of eastern Poland, including Belarus. In the 1800's, Russian officials began a
policy called Russification. This policy promoted the Russian culture and language
at the expense of other cultures and languages, including Belarusian. Nevertheless,
the Belarusian people's sense of national distinctiveness grew during the 1800's and
1900's, as did their resentment of Russian control.
Soviet rule. In 1917, revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks (later called
Communists) overthrew the czar of Russia and seized control of the government. In
March 1918, the Belarusians established an independent state called the Belarusian
National Republic. But Russian Communists invaded the republic later that
year. They renamed the country Byelorussia, a name derived from the Russian words
Belaya Rus (White Russia). In January 1919, they proclaimed a Communist-ruled state
called the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Poland gained control of western
Belarus in 1919, at the start of the Polish-Russian War. In 1922, Byelorussia joined
with three other republics to form the Soviet Union.
In the 1930's, Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, pushed the policy of
Russification in Byelorussia and other non-Russian republics. The Soviet government
caused much suffering by seizing land from private farmers to form large state-run
In 1939, the Soviets occupied western Belarus, which Poland had controlled since 1919, and
reunited it with Byelorussia. Nazi Germany occupied Byelorussia and other Soviet
territory from 1941 to 1944, during World War II. The area suffered great damage
during the war. Minsk was almost entirely destroyed. After the Nazis lost the
war, the Soviets regained Byelorussia, including western Belarus. In 1945, Soviet
Byelorussia became a founding member of the United Nations.
An explosion and fire that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in
1986 had a major impact on Byelorussia. The winds caused about 70 percent of the
radioactive fallout from Chernobyl to fall on Byelorussia. The radiation
contaminated the republic's food and water supplies and caused many health problems,
including increased cancer deaths.
Independence. In 1990, the Byelorussian parliament declared that the
republic's laws took precedence over the laws of the Soviet Union. In August 1991,
conservative Communist officials failed in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet Union's
president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. During the upheaval that followed, Byelorussia and
several other Soviet republics declared their independence. In September, the
republic changed its name from the Russian form Byelorussia to the Belarusian form
Belarus. In December, Belarus joined with other republics in a loose association
called the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) to deal with their common economic,
political, and military problems. Minsk became the administrative capital of the
C.I.S. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved on December 25.
Recent developments. During the period that Belarus was a Soviet republic, the
Communist government of the Soviet Union controlled the entire economy. After Belarus
became independent, it planned, like other former Soviet republics, to reduce government
control of economic activities. The plans called for many inefficient state-owned
factories, farms, and other businesses to close, and for the number of private businesses
to grow. But the country's slow pace in changing to a free-market system led to
reductions in international aid. As a result, Belarus moved to form closer ties with
other former republics of the Soviet Union, especially Russia.
Aleksandr Lukashenko became president of Belarus in 1994, the same year the country
adopted a new constitution. In 1996, however, Lukashenko pushed through a referendum for a
new constitution that would expand his power. The referendum, which passed, extended
Lukashenko's term to 2001 and gave him increased control over every branch of
government. Opponents of Lukashenko said the vote had been falsified. They
accused him of establishing a dictatorship and limiting the freedoms of the people.
In 1997, Lukashenko and Russia's president, Boris N. Yeltsin, approved a charter
that was to pave the way for a union of the two countries.
Facts in brief about Belarus
Official languages: Belarusian and Russian.
Official name: Respublika Byelarus (Republic of Belarus).
Area: 80,155 sq. mi. (207,600 sq. km). Greatest distances --north-south, 340 mi. (545 km);
east-west, 385 mi. (620 km).
Elevation: Highest --Dzerzhinskaya Gora, 1,135 ft. (346 m) above sea level. Lowest --Neman
(also spelled Nyoman ) River at northwestern border, 295 ft. (90 m) above sea level.
Population: Estimated 2000 population --10,069,000; density, 126 persons per sq. mi. (49
per sq. km); distribution, 69 percent urban, 31 percent rural. 1989 census --10,199,709.
Chief products: Agriculture --barley, cattle, flax, hogs, potatoes, rye, sugar beets.
Manufacturing --bicycles, clocks, computers, engineering equipment, furniture,
metal-cutting tools, motorcycles, plywood and paper, potassium fertilizer, refrigerators,
television sets, textiles, trucks and tractors.
Flag: The flag has a wide red horizontal stripe above a narrower green stripe. A
traditional embroidery pattern appears at the left.
Money: Basic unit --Belarusian ruble.