Belarus is a country of Europe
with a surface area of 207,600 km² (density of 46.13 inhab./km²). The population of Belarus is 9,577,552 inhabitants in the last census.The capital of Belarus is the city of Minsk which has 1,836,808 inhabitants. The president of the presidential republic is Alexandre Loukachenko.
Belarus also known as Belarus is an eastern European country sharing borders with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine. It is completely enclave in these countries, having no opening on the sea.
Belarus is a presidential republic that became independent at the fall of the USSR in 1991. The country remained very close to Russia with which it forms a dowry union. On the other hand, the United States does not allow the current government to reside on its territory because of the dictatorial and repressive regime imposed by President Lukashenko.
Belarus at a glance
Administrative divisions: 6 voblasts (regions)
Population: more than 9 million inhabitants
Main Languages: Belarusian, Russian
Main religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism (40% of atheists)
Current President: Alexander Lukashenko
Current Prime Minister: Andrei Kobiakov
Currency: Belarusian ruble (1 Belarusian ruble = 100 kapieïkas)
Conversion into euro: 10,000 Belarusian rubles = 0.47 euro
Tourism: no restriction
A wild nature
Belarus is characterized by the vast plains strewn with rivers and lakes where only a few high plateaus and hills stand out. The highest peak in the country, Mount Dzerzhinsky is 346 meters above sea level. In the southern part of the country, a swampy area, the Pinsk marshes, borders the banks of Pripiat, the river which runs through the city of Chernobyl (Ukraine) and which still drains radioisotopes as a result of the nuclear disaster. 1986. It is the largest wetland in Europe. A part of the Pripiat valley is not accessible because of the dangers of contamination but it is home to a large wildlife.
30% of the territory of Belarus is uninhabited and covered with forests of which the oldest virgin forest of Europe, the Bialiwieza Forest located on the Polish border is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage. It is the last vestige of the forest that covered the north and the center of the continent after the last glaciation. It was probably part of the Hercynian forest mentioned by Julius Caesar in his "De Bello Gallico" relating the Gaulish War, although the historians cannot agree on the exact limits of it.
The Bialiwieza forest protected by a national park is home to over 3,000 varieties of plants, trees and shrubs, 1,500 varieties of mushrooms, a large number of mosses, lichens and algae as well as diverse and typical European fauna such as the bison, the deer, the wild boars and the rare wolf or the lynx. In total, more than 11,000 species of animals, mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, fish, amphibians and birds were observed.
Belarus enjoys a temperate continental climate with the cold winters especially in the north (average temperature of -6 °C) and mild and humid summers (average temperature of 18 °C).
A Slavic Origin
The settlement of Belarus probably began during the prehistory, around 26,000 BC, according to the dating of archaeological remains discovered in the region of Gomel, not far from the Russian and Ukrainian borders.
However, most historians agree that the true history of the country begins in the 6th century AD, when several Slavic ethnic groups settled in the region formed by the confluence of the Dnieper and Pripiat, after hunting or subduing The Baltic tribes (or Proto-Slavs), during the Barbarian Invasions. The Slavs established many small kingdoms, the most important of which belonged to the tribes of the Krivitches, the Dregovits and the Radimitches known for their agriculture and especially for their trade with the Vikings.
The time of the Principalities
By the 9th century, the kingdoms regrouped to form stronger states, soon to be dominated by the Polotsk Principality (or Duchy) founded by the Krivitches tribe. The capital, Polotsk, becomes a relatively important city. The Principality is not, however, a strong nation and it must face the attacks of the Principality of Kiev, which seeks to annex the region. One of the Princes of Kiev married by force in the 10th century Rogneda, a young girl of Polotsk but when he becomes the husband of a Christian a few years later, he must divorce of his other women. The return of Rogneda to Polotsk marks the beginning of Eastern Christianity attached to Constantinople in the region. The principality then had a golden age and an important cultural and religious influence, as evidenced by the remains of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral built in the 11th century. (The present-day St. Sophia Cathedral dates back to the 18th century and was rebuilt much less than the original one. It served as a place of worship for the united community of Rome before being closed by the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1949. Today it has been restored and houses a concert hall).
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
This period of peace ends due to the rivalry of the lords who seek to control the cities of the country which will considerably weaken it. When the Mongols were at the gates of the Principality in 1240, the rival lords would have to seek the assistance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to prevent them from invading the region.
The Principality of Polotsk was attached to the Grand Duchy in 1307 and the Lords gave way to the voivodes, the commanders representing the Lithuanian Grand Dukes.
However, a certain freedom is granted to the Slavs, who can in particular maintain the Orthodox religion and their own languages at the origin of the current Belarusian language while enjoying Lithuanian citizenship.
The age of the Republic of the Two Nations
In the 14th century, Poland and Lithuania united by the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila and Hedwig of Anjou, Queen of Poland, thus laying the foundations of the Republic of the Two Nations defined by the Treaty of Lublin in 1569 which became the largest European state. For more than two centuries, this state will be one of the greatest European powers.
However, the situation between the two nations is not fair and Poland has a significantly higher number of seats in Parliament because of its larger population. So Poland took over and the craftsmen who settled in the Lithuanian cities quickly gained important jobs while the Belarusians were confined to the agricultural sector. The difference of religion between the two nations is also the cause of internal conflicts.
Belarus, however, enjoys a new golden age and many castles are built at that time along the roads of the Grand Duchy of Litania. The splendid Mir Castle, a symbol of Belarusian architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The annexation to Russia
The 18th century marks a turning point in the history of Belarus. Poland and Lithuania are facing serious setbacks, while the political situation is closing in on chaos. Their territories are divided between the emerging nations ending the Republic of Two Nations.
Belarus was annexed to Russia in 1795 and became a Russian outpost in Western Europe. To compensate for the heavy losses suffered during the wars and especially to prevent any attempt at revolt, the Tsar sent a large number of Russians who came to repopulate the country. It will also impose Russian as the national language throughout the country which is divided into four parts around the present capital Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev and Hrodna.
The Napoleonic Campaigns
It is in this difficult context that the Campaign of Russia led by the troops of Napoleon 1st in 1812 begins. Many Belarusian peasants join the Napoleonic army which allows France to win many battles against the Russians.
But this victory is short-lived and the French army must abandon Belarus after the Battle of the Berezina. The Napoleonic army is in full retreat towards France, blocked by a severe winter for which it is badly prepared. Despite his victories and the capture of Moscow, the army is literally decimated and the remaining troops become unruly. The refueling becomes problematic, as the Russians have destroyed the crops while retreating before the enemy. The soldiers end up eating their horses and even their dead comrades.
The cold weather, the hunger and the disease caused more casualties than the war in this disastrous campaign.
The Tsars took advantage of this to further Russian Belarus by banning the learning of Polish, forbidding Belarusian, Ukrainian or Lithuanian and imposing the Orthodox religion.
The birth of the USSR
As early as 1830, the nationalist movements were initiated in the country but spread with difficulty because of a rate of illiteracy close to 80%. The Russians put down the rebellions but eventually concede social measures and in particular the end of serfdom, which in the end will not change the status of poor peasants to acquire their own land.
Towards the beginning of the 20th century, the industrialization enabled the Social-Democratic Labor Party to see the light of day in Minsk on the eve of the First World War. The Germans will soon take over Belarus, which will remain German at the end of the war. A first attempt to become independent fails in 1918 and the Belarusian People's Republic falls into the hands of the Russian Bolsheviks and becomes a Soviet Socialist Republic the following year.
In 1921, the USSR was founded encompassing the republics of Russia, Transcaucasia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Stalin forces the population to renounce their own culture and sends children to school where they speak only in Russian in order to eradicate their mother tongue. During the period of the "Great Stalinist Purges", the intellectual elite of Belarus disappeared. Anyone suspected of threatening the regime in place is deported to the Gulag colonies or even executed for crimes against the state. The hundreds of thousands of people (several million according to some historians) were arrested and imprisoned in Soviet prisons, real death camps.
The Second World War
But the specter of a new conflict increases at the same time as the power of Hitler's Nazism and the USSR signed a pact of non-aggression with Germany in 1939 guaranteeing the neutrality of each country in case of conflict with other nations. At that time, many countries were trying to deal with a situation that was beginning to escape them, which explains the multiplicity of agreements that were sometimes contradictory. They also want to make the most of alliances and tensions.
The German-Soviet pact is no exception to the rule since it was accompanied by secret clauses delimiting the spheres of influence of the two countries on the territories between them, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Finland.
With this agreement and the certainty of not being attacked by the East, Nazi Germany invaded France in 1940. But soon it broke the pact and attacked by surprise the USSR in June 1941. This operation baptized Barbarossa had already been prepared as early as July 1940 by Hitler's staff.
Germany and its allies, Japan and Italy sink into the Soviet lands of a European conflict, a world war. Belarus is one of the first territories to fall and the resisters are executed on the spot. A government entirely controlled by Berlin is set up, the Central Belarusian Rada. A regime of terror has been established and the many Jewish Belorussians are deported or killed, whole villages are burned. This dramatic situation has the effect of mobilizing strong resistance against Nazi Germany in the country.
In 1944, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive and triggered Operation Bagration in order to liberate German-occupied Belarus. This operation, supported by the Resistance, ended in a memorable defeat of the Wehrmacht already weakened by the war in the USSR and especially by the Normandy landing of the Allied troops. The liberation of Belarus is a first stage on the road to Berlin.
Belarus has paid a heavy toll in human lives (1.3 million killed) in the Second World War. In addition, 90% of industries, 9,200 villages and 209 cities were destroyed.
After the war, Belarus must rebuild itself with the help of Moscow. It was at this time that the city of Minsk was developing around the automotive industries specialized in trucks and tractors. The population also benefits from social reforms that will strengthen the attachment of the Belarusian people to the USSR.
In 1990, Belarus declared its national sovereignty and became the Republic of Belarus on August 25th 1991 shortly before the official dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, the people remained faithful to Soviet rule and a Belarus-Russian Union treaty was signed by Boris Yeltsin and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president. This rapprochement between the two countries ends with the accession of Vladimir Putin to power in 2000.
Alexander Lukashenko has been President of the Republic of Belarus since July 20h 1994. He governs his country in an authoritarian and even dictatorial manner and keeps the country in isolation.
Belarus maintains links only with the Russia it depends on for the supply of energy. It benefits from low prices
The President and several of his colleagues are forbidden to stay in the United States. The country is also known for censorship against the media (journalists and the Internet).
The opposition supported by the United States tries to get the country out of this authoritarian regime by organizing computer training camps. Several "anti-Lukashenko" political movements are campaigning for the establishment of true democracy.
The executive power is thus entrusted to the President of the Republic (head of state) elected by popular vote for a five-year term which, according to the Constitution, could be renewed only once. Alexander Lukashenko has abolished the limit of the number of mandates in order to remain in power. The Prime Minister (now Andrey Kobiakov) is the head of government.
The legislative power is exercised by the National Assembly composed of the Council of the Republic and the House of Representatives.
The judicial power is entrusted to the Supreme Court of Belarus, whose judges are chosen by the President. The questions concerning the Constitution must be settled by a Constitutional Court.
A slow economic recovery
On leaving the USSR, Belarus experienced a severe economic crisis. The current results tend to show a recovery and GDP growth. However, the numbers should be taken with caution as the government could inflate them. The country suffers from a high inflation. The unemployment figures also vary (from 1 to 24%) according to the sources.
Belarus is taking advantage of its trade relations with Russia to get the preferential energy prices and export its goods.
Nevertheless, the country has not really evolved in recent decades and only 15% of companies are private, which makes the economy non-competitive. The average standard of living of Belarusians is very low.
The main sectors of activity are agriculture (milk, cheese and meat), the petrochemical and the automotive industries and the services.
Despite an interesting architectural and historical heritage, the tourism is very little developed in the country, even prohibited in certain regions.
A culture influenced by Russia
The total population of Belarus has exceeded 9,500,000 inhabitants. 8,000,000 of them are Belarusians and 800,000 are Russians. Other foreigners on the territory are mainly Poles, Ukrainians and Armenians.
Since 1993, the demographic curve is on a downward slope (+/- 500,000 inhabitants less in 2015 than in 1993). This is due to a low fertility rate (1.5 children per woman).
However, the birthrate policy put in place by President Lukashenko has made it possible for the population to stabilize in recent years (maternity allowances and maternity leave, family allowances, etc.)
Belarusian and Russian are the two official languages of the country. They are spoken by 53% and 42% of families respectively.
Christianity is the religion of 55% of Belarusians (48% Orthodox and 7% Catholic). 41% of the population is atheist or agnostic.
Belarusian cuisine is comparable to that of other eastern countries, including stews made from potatoes, cabbage and pork. The traditional dish, kopytka consists of dumplings of potatoes accompanied by cheese, bacon and onions.
The sodas, the fruit juices and of course the vodka sold at a paltry price are the favorite beverages of Belarusians.
The tourists wishing to stay more than 5 days in Belarus must have a visa. The same is true of travelers passing through Russia, under penalty of a fine.
They must also be able to provide a medical insurance certificate and a minimum of 46 Belarusian rubles per person per day of the stay.
The persons requiring medication should consult the list of substances prohibited or subject to conditions prior to departure.
There is a real health risk following the Chernobyl disaster. It is recommended not to eat freshwater fish, mushrooms and berries and, more generally, any food from contaminated areas. Also avoid drinking tap water or uncapped bottles.
Among the most important places in Belarus, the capital Minsk is a fine example of Neoclassical or Stalinist architecture and its imposing monuments. Having suffered heavy bombardment during the World War II, the city, like most of the country's cities, has been almost completely rebuilt, sometimes identically. Only the district of the Faubourg de la Trinité was spared. Not to be missed: the National Theater of Opera and Ballet in Russian Constructivist Style (official art of the Russian Revolution).
The cities of Mir and Nesvizh (or Niasvij) remarkable for their castles have been included in UNESCO's World Heritage List.