Belarus, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the north and east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north.
Its capital is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Grodno (Hrodna), Gomel (Homiel), Mahilyow (Mahiloŭ) and Vitebsk (Viciebsk).
Forty percent of the country is forested, and its strongest economic sectors are agriculture and manufacturing.
Until the 20th century, the Belarusians lacked the opportunity to create a distinctive national identity because for centuries the lands of modern-day Belarus belonged to several ethnically different countries, including the Duchy of Polatsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
After the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic (1918–19), Belarus became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the Byelorussian SSR.
The final unification of Belarusian lands within its modern borders took place in 1939, when the ethnically Belarusian- Russian lands held by the Second Polish Republic (interwar Poland) were annexed into the USSR under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and attached to Soviet Belarus.
The territory and its nation were devastated in World War II, during which Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources; the republic was redeveloped in the post-war years.
The parliament of the republic declared the sovereignty of Belarus on 27 July 1990, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared independence on 25 August 1991. Alexander Lukashenko has been the country's president since 1994.
During his presidency, Lukashenko has implemented Soviet- era policies, such as state ownership of the economy, despite objections from Western governments.
Since 2000, Belarus and Russia signed a treaty for greater cooperation, with some hints of forming a Union State.
Most of Belarus's population of 9.85 million reside in the urban areas surrounding Minsk and other oblast (regional) capitals.
More than 80% of the population are native Belarusians, with sizable minorities of Russians, Poles and Ukrainians.
Since a referendum in 1995, the country has had two official languages: Belarusian and Russian.
The Constitution of Belarus does not declare an official religion, although the primary religion in the country is Russian Orthodox Christianity and the second most popular is Roman Catholicism.
Both Orthodox and Catholic Christmas and Easter are officially respected as national holidays.
The name Belarus derives from the term White Rus, which first appeared in German and Latin medieval literature.
The Latin term for the area was Alba Ruthenia.
Historically, the country was referred to in English as White Ruthenia.
It is also claimed that it describes the area of Eastern Europe populated by Slavic people or the states that occupied the area.
The first known use of White Russia to refer to Belarus was in the late-16th century by Englishman Sir Jerome Horsey.
During the 17th century, Russian tsars used White Rus', asserting that they were trying to recapture their heritage from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Belarus was named Belorussia (Russian: Белоруссия) in the days of Imperial Russia, and the Russian tsar was usually styled Tsar of All the Russias—Great, Little, and White.
Belorussia was the only Russian language name of the country (its names in other languages such as English being based on the Russian form) until 1991, when the Supreme Soviet of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic decreed by law that the new independent republic should be called Belarus Беларусь) in Russian and in all other language transcriptions of its name.
The change was made to reflect adequately the Belarusian language form of the name.
Accordingly, the name Belorussia was replaced by Belarus in English, and, to some extent, in Russian (although the traditional name still persists in that language as well); likewise, the adjective Belorussian or Byelorussian was replaced by Belarusian in English (though Russian has not developed a new adjective).
Some Belarusians object to the name Belorussia as an unwelcome reminder of the days under Russian and Soviet rule.
However, several popular newspapers published locally still retain the old name of the country in Russian in their names, for example Komsomolskaya Pravda v Byelorussii, which is the localised publication of a popular Russian tabloid.
Officially, the full name of the country is Republic of Belarus (Рэспубліка Беларусь, Республика Беларусь, Respublika Byelarus').
The region that is now modern-day Belarus was first settled by Slavic tribes in the 6th century.
They gradually came into contact with the Varangians, a band of warriors consisting of Scandinavians and Slavs from the Baltics.
Though defeated and briefly exiled by the local population, the Varangians were later asked to return and helped to form a polity—commonly referred to as the Kievan Rus'—in exchange for tribute.
The Kievan Rus' state began in about 862 at the present-day city of Novgorod, or alternatively at Kiev.
Upon the death of Kievan Rus' ruler, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the state split into independent principalities.
These Ruthenian principalities were badly affected by a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, and many were later incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Of the principalities held by the Duchy, nine were settled by ancestors of the Belarusian people.
During this time, the Duchy was involved in several military campaigns, including fighting on the side of Poland against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410; the joint victory allowed the Duchy to control the northwestern border lands of Eastern Europe.
On 2 February 1386, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland were joined in a personal union through a marriage of their rulers.
This union set in motion the developments that eventually resulted in the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created in 1569.
The Russians, led by Tsar Ivan the III, began military conquests in 1486 in an attempt to reunite the Kievan Rus' lands, specifically the missing Belarus and Ukraine.
The union between Poland and Lithuania ended in 1795, and the commonwealth was partitioned by Imperial Russia, Prussia, and Austria, dividing Belarus.
Belarusian territories were acquired by the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine II and held until their occupation by Germany during World War I.
During the negotiations of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Belarus first declared independence on 25 March 1918, forming the Belarusian People's Republic.
The Germans supported the BPR, which lasted for about ten months.
Soon after the Germans were defeated, the BPR fell under the influence of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army and became the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919.
After Russian occupation of eastern and northern Lithuania, it was merged into the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Byelorussian lands were then split between Poland and the Soviets after the Polish-Soviet War ended in 1921, and the recreated Byelorussian SSR became a founding member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.
At the same time Western Belarus remained occupied by Poland.
A set of agricultural reforms, culminating in the Belarusian phase of Soviet collectivisation, began in the 1920s.
A process of rapid industrialization was undertaken during the 1930s, following the model of Soviet five-year plans.
In 1939, West Belarus, the territory of modern Belarus that Poland had acquired from the Soviets pursuant to Treaty of Riga two decades earlier, was reunited with Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The area was a part of the territories of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
The decision was made by the Soviet controlled Belarusian People Council on October 28, 1939 in Bialystok.
Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 – the Fortress of Brest in western Belarus receiving one of the fiercest of the war's opening blows, with its notable defense in 1941 coming to be remembered as an act of heroism in countering the German aggression.
Statistically, Byelorussia was the hardest hit Soviet Republic in the war and remained in Nazi hands until 1944.
During that time, Germany destroyed 209 out of 290 cities in the republic, 85% of the republic's industry, and more than one million buildings.
Casualties were estimated to between two and three million (about a quarter to one-third of the total population).
The population of Belarus did not regain its pre-war level until 1971.
After the war ended, Byelorussia was officially among the 51 founding countries of the United Nations Charter in 1945.
Intense post-war reconstruction was initiated promptly.
During this time, the Byelorussian SSR became a major center of manufacturing in the western region of the USSR, increasing jobs and bringing an influx of ethnic Russians into the republic.
The borders of Byelorussian SSR and Poland were redrawn to a point known as the Curzon Line.
Joseph Stalin implemented a policy of Sovietisation to isolate the Byelorussian SSR from Western influences.
This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government.
The official use of the Belarusian language and other cultural aspects were limited by Moscow.
After Stalin died in 1953, successor Nikita Khrushchev continued this program, stating, "The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism."
The Byelorussian SSR was significantly exposed to nuclear fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in neighboring Ukrainian SSR in 1986.
In June 1988 at the rural site of Kurapaty near Minsk, archaeologist Zianon Pazniak, the leader of Christian Conservative Party of the BPF, discovered mass graves which contained about 250,000 bodies of victims executed in 1937-1941.
Some nationalists contend that this discovery is proof that the Soviet government was trying to erase the Belarusian people, causing Belarusian nationalists to seek independence.
Two years later, in March 1990, elections for seats in the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR took place.
Though the pro-independence Belarusian Popular Front took only 10% of the seats, the populace was content with the selection of the delegates.
Belarus declared itself sovereign on 27 July 1990, by issuing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
With the support of the Communist Party, the country's name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991.
Stanislav Shushkevich, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Belarus, met with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine on 8 December 1991, in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to formally declare the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A national constitution was adopted in March 1994, in which the functions of prime minister were given to the president.
Two-round elections for the presidency (24 June 1994 and 10 July 1994) resulted in the politically unknown Alexander Lukashenko winning more than 45% of the vote in the first round and 80% in the second round, beating Vyacheslav Kebich who got 14%.
Lukashenko was reelected in 2001 and in 2006.
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For more information about Belarus see Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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This page was retrieved and condensed from (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belarus) November 2009.
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License (see Copyrights for details).
This information was correct in November 2009. E. & O.E.
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