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Country profile: Belarus
language: Russian, Belarussian (both official) President: Alexander Lukashenko
accounted for 23 percent of the country's 1998
GDP and employed nearly 650,000 people, or more
than 17 percent of the labor force in 1999. The
majority of agriculture is conducted on
state-owned lands and farms. Private farms,
however, are much more efficient than state
farms. Private farms produce an estimated 40
percent of agricultural output, even though they
constitute a mere 15 percent of all agricultural
lands. The primary food crops produced by
Belarusian agriculture are barley, corn,
potatoes, sugar beets, and wheat. Meat products
include beef, veal, chicken, lamb, and pork. The
most profitable agricultural exports in 2000
were butter, alcoholic beverages, condensed
milk, beef, and cheese. The total value of
agricultural exports in 2000 was US$377 million,
while the value of agricultural imports was
Vegetable oil is produced locally and sold to
Russia, and it is imported from the Ukraine.
Production capacities of the fat and oil
industry meet the domestic market demand for
vegetable oil, margarine, mayonnaise, and soap,
as well as allow for the export of some finished
products. The fields devoted to rape (a type of
herb with oily seeds used to make canola oil)
were increased from 88,000 hectares in 1998 to
150,000 hectares in 2000. The total sowing area
under oilseeds was still 16 percent less than
what it was in 1990. In order to solve the
problem of domestic vegetable oil needs, to
expand the growth of oilseeds and to increase
the efficiency of oilseed production, the
government supplied farms with quality seeds,
mineral fertilizers, pesticides, and specialized
harvesting machinery. Furthermore, it
strengthened the material and technical base for
seed processing and drying. An increase of the
domestic production of vegetable oil was also
induced by the rapid rise of the price for
imported oils and oilseeds.
The present borders of Belarus were established during the turmoil of World War II.
The former Soviet republic was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and
1944, when it lost 2.2 million people, including most of its large Jewish population.
There are about 400,000 ethnic Poles living in the west of the country.
The country became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
More than a decade later, the sense of national identity is weak, international isolation continues and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue.
In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away.
For much of his career, Mr Lukashenko has sought to develop closer ties with Russia. On the political front, there was talk of union but little tangible evidence of real progress, and certainly not toward the union of equals dreamt of by President Lukashenko.
Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia to meet its own energy needs and a considerable proportion of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe pass through it.
There was a sharp rise in tension between the two countries at the end of 2006 when Moscow threatened to cut the gas supply until Minsk reluctantly agreed to a deal more than doubling the price.
Relations took a further turn for the worse immediately afterwards when a row over oil exports and related tax rates prompted Russia to cut the supply along the oil export pipeline to Europe. The sides soon reached agreement and the oil flow resumed but not before the row had put Russia's energy muscle back in the spotlight.
Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, was declared to have won a third term as president at elections in March 2006 following a vote which Western observers said was fundamentally flawed.
President Lukashenko takes pride in his authoritarian style
They reported widespread harassment of opposition supporters and overwhelming media bias. Official results indicated that Mr Lukashenko had won over 80% of the vote.
The EU and US condemned the election while Russian President Vladimir Putin sent congratulations. The EU also banned the president and a number of
ministers and officials from entering member countries. Mr Lukashenko's assets
in the EU and US are frozen.
A former state farm director, Mr Lukashenko was first elected president in
1994, following his energetic performance as chairman of the parliamentary
A 1996 referendum gave the president greatly increased powers at the expense of parliament and extended his term by two years. He won a further five years in office in 2001 presidential elections condemned as undemocratic by Western observers. Another referendum in October 2004 supported lifting the two-term limit on Mr Lukashenko's rule, allowing him to stand again in 2006.
Over the years, several opposition politicians who might have provided leadership have disappeared or been imprisoned. Insulting the president, even in jest, carries a prison sentence.
The president remains defiant in the face of Western pressure for change. He has dismissed all possibility of revolutions such as those which brought an end to old-style regimes in Georgia and neighbouring Ukraine.
The government maintained its stranglehold on politics in the 2008 parliamentary elections, winning all seats.
But the release in late 2008 of several opposition activists prompted a slight loosening of EU and US sanctions, and tentative talk of a thaw in relations with the West.
He is keen on sport with a particular interest in ice hockey. He was born in 1954.
The Belarussian authorities have been heavily criticised by human rights and media organisations for suppressing freedom of speech, muzzling the independent press and denying the opposition access to state-owned media.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Belarus 154th out of 173 countries in its 2008 press freedom index.
A media law, passed in June-July 2008, raised concerns at home and abroad. New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the law as "severely restrictive", citing restrictions on foreign funding for the media, accreditation rules for journalists, and government efforts to "censor the web".
TV is the main source of news. The four national channels are state-controlled; their main competitors for news coverage are Russian TV networks.
Government-controlled newspapers enjoy considerable subsidies and financial privileges, while much of the opposition print media has faced increased charges and been forced to change name, close down, or publish abroad.
But some private publications survive. They include the business daily BDG Delovaya Gazeta and the embattled opposition paper Narodnaya Volya.
Foreign media outlets target Belarus. They include the Polish-funded, Belarussian-language satellite TV station Belsat. The channel has yet to attract the mass audience that would make it an influential media source.
The internet is the medium least controlled by the authorities, and the web is used by the opposition to make its voice heard. There were around 2.8 million internet users by December 2008 (InternetWorldStats). In 2009 RSF said officials had "drawn information from the Chinese model" in tackling online dissent.