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Background

Discover Belarus: its history, people, economy, politics and holidays. Find out more about Belarus' only president, Alexander Lukashenko and artist Alexander Pushkin, who protested Lukashenko's first term extension beyond its original legal limit.

Belarus

Location and History

Situated between Poland and Russia, Belarus was a province of other nations for most of the 20th century. Formerly a territory under the control of Poland, Belarus enjoyed a brief independence after the end of World War I. It spent most of the next 70 years under the control of the government in Moscow. Belarusians were fiercely persecuted in the 1930s and 1940s as Stalinist purges gave way to Nazi occupation. Caught between rival powers at the crossroads of Eastern and Central Europe, the country was invaded by Germany in 1941, then again became a Soviet possession after the end of World War II. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus gained independence in 1991. Belarus and the Russian Federation maintain close connections, and a treaty signed in 1999 set out a framework for greater economic and political integration.


People

Belarus is home to about 9.7 million people, the vast majority of whom are ethnically Belarusian. About 80 percent of the population describe themselves as Eastern Orthodox. There are also small populations of Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants. Approximately 11 percent of the population identifies as Russian; less than 5 percent describes itself as Polish, Ukrainian or another ethnic group. The population is aging and in decline, shrinking by about 0.4 percent per year. Life expectancy is highly variable in Belarus, but on average, women outlive men by 12 years.


Economy

The nation's economy is largely stagnant. In 1995, President Alexander Lukashenko described the country's official economic approach as "market socialism," but in practice it differs little from that of the Soviet era. The central government controls prices and currency exchange rates, and in 2005, many of the country's privately held companies were nationalized. Intrusions on private enterprise are frequent, and international investment has been meager. The nation's infrastructure is poor, and low government revenues make significant improvement unlikely. Twenty-seven percent of the population lives below the poverty line (as compared with 12 percent in the United States and 16 percent in Russia).


Politics

In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was elected by a landslide as the newly independent country's first president. The results of subsequent elections, including those for Belarus's two-house legislature, have been labeled "flawed" by international observers. Opposition parties exist, but dissent is harshly suppressed. Many government officials who have fallen out of favor or spoken out against Lukashenko's authoritarianism have been forced to flee the country. There have also been accusations that Lukashenko's government simply eliminated some of its internal enemies, including a former deputy prime minister and a former minister of internal affairs. Political dissent is not tolerated — the government routinely arrests critics who speak out. In addition, Lukashenko's government has resisted ties with any foreign governments or investors except Russia, giving rise to suspicions that he ultimately wants Belarus to once again be ruled from Moscow.


Holidays

Belarus observes its official Independence Day on July 3, commemorating the country's liberation from German occupation. The liberating forces were Soviet troops. The event represented the beginning of five decades of Soviet domination. Another date of significance, August 15, 1991, represents Belarus's independence from the former Soviet Union. Dissidents inside Belarus have organized commemorations to take place on May 25 to pay tribute to the Belarusian National Republic, the first truly independent Belarusian state, which existed for just a few months in World War I, between the defeat of Germany and the arrival of the Red Army.

The summer solstice is also celebrated by some Belarusians and is commonly known as Kupala or Kupalle. Kupala was known to be a female goddess of fertility whose name meant "she who bathes." Nowadays, the holiday has been reshaped into a Christian holiday celebrating the male saint Ivan Kupala.

Sources:
» "Belarus." CIA World Factbook. Updated April 15, 2008.
» "Country Profile: Belarus." British Broadcasting Corporation. Updated March 5, 2008.
» "Post-Soviet Belarus: A Timeline." Radio Free Europe. February 24, 2006.
» "Profile: Europe's Last Dictator?" British Broadcasting Corporation. September 10, 2001.
» http://www.belarusguide.com/culture1/religion/Religion.html



Alexander Lukashenko

Born in 1954, Alexander Lukashenko was raised by a single mother. After service in the Soviet army and study at two universities, he served in several administrative positions before joining the state legislature in 1990. Belarus declared independence in 1991; Lukashenko emerged as the victor in the resulting 1994 presidential election, defeating a powerful former Communist Party official. After a 1996 referendum effectively gave Lukashenko the power to pick the members of parliament, he was harshly criticized as "Europe's last Communist dictator."

Lukashenko has been Belarus's only president. He has continued to spark criticism abroad, but maintains a strong base of popularity in Belarus, although state controls of politics and media make it difficult to know for certain. He has described himself as an authoritarian, asserting that only a strong government can protect its people. With a carefully cultivated image as a "man of the people," Lukashenko cites stability and the need for order as the primary reasons for his strong base of support.

The first post-Soviet-era constitution limited presidents to two terms, but Lukashenko has spoken frequently of serving for longer than that. In 2004 the constitution was amended to remove presidential term limits, allowing Lukashenko to serve in the position for a third term.

Sources:
» "Country Profile: Belarus." British Broadcasting Corporation. updated March 5, 2008.
» "Profile: Alexander Lukashenko." British Broadcasting Corporation. January 9, 2007.
» "Profile: Europe's Last Dictator?" British Broadcasting Corporation. September 10, 2001.



Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin was born in 1965 in the town of Bobr, in the Krupki region of Belarus. He studied at the Belarusian Art College beginning in 1978. After completing his military service in the Soviet army, during which he was sent to Afghanistan, Pushkin continued his studies and was eventually placed into a government-sponsored job as a painter. After the Soviet Union collapsed, his work was featured in several exhibitions. When the Lukashenko government came to power, Pushkin found it more difficult to show his art, although he did some work as a theatrical set designer. The new government followed the model of the centrally controlled Soviet Union, and private exhibitions and work for artists were subject to the control of the regime.

Since the mid-1990s, Pushkin has regularly been arrested for protesting the government through his works. In 1999, Pushkin carted a load of manure to the steps of the presidential palace, to protest the extension of Lukashenko's first term as president beyond its original legal limit. In 2002, he was once again arrested, this time for his protest on Independence Day in Minsk. He was held for 24 hours, then released.

Sources:
» "Aching Souls of Belarus Pine for Liberation." The Globe and Mail. March 2, 2000.
» "Belarus: Nationalist Artist to Stand Trial for Independence Day Exhibition." Belapan News Agency, Minsk, supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. July 5, 2002.
» "Biography of Alexander Pushkin on his personal website."





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I turned on the PBS channel and was so happy to hear Belarusian language and see the scenery of my homeland! By the end of the show I felt disappointed and angry. I feel a bit embarrassed that the world will see this odd person and think all Belarusians are like that.”

— Olia Melnikava, viewer

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