While archeological evidence points to settlement in today's Belarus
at least 10,000 years ago, recorded history begins with settlement by Baltic
and Slavic tribes in the early centuries A.D. With distinctive features
by the ninth century, the emerging Belarusian state was then absorbed by
Kievan Rus' in the 9th century. Belarus was later an integral part of what
was called Litva, which included today's Belarus as well as today's Lithuania.
Belarus was the birthplace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Belarusian
was the state language of the Grand Duchy until 1697, in part owing to
the strong flowering of Belarusian culture during the Renaissance through
the works of leading Belarusian humanists such as Frantzisk Skaryna).
Belarus was the site of the Union of Brest in 1597, which created the
Greek Catholic Church, for long the majority church in Belarus until suppressed
by the Russian empire, and the birthplace of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who played
a key role in the American Revolution. Occupied by the Russian empire from
the end of the 18th century until 1918, Belarus declared its short-lived
National Republic on March 25, 1918, only to be forcibly absorbed by the
Bolsheviks into what became the Soviet Union. Suffering massive population
losses under Stalin and the Nazi occupation, Belarus was retaken by the
Soviets in 1944. It declared its sovereignty on July 27, 1990, and independence
from the Soviet Union on August 25, 1991. It has been run by the authoritarian
Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
Since his election in July 1994 to a five-year term as the country's
first President Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated power steadily in
the executive branch through authoritarian means. He used a non-democratic
November 1996 referendum to amend the 1994 Constitution in order to broaden
his powers and illegally extend his term in office. The new constitution
has a popularly elected president who serves a 5-year term. The bicameral
parliament consists of the 64-seat Council of the Republic and the 110-seat
Chamber of Representatives. The president appoints the prime minister,
who is the head of government. Administratively, the country is divided
into six regions or "voblasts".
In October 2000, parliamentary elections occurred for the first time
since the disputed referendum of 1996. According to OSCE/ODIHR, these elections
failed to meet international standards for democratic elections. In particular
the elections fell far short of meeting the minimum commitments for free,
fair, equal, accountable and transparent elections. Following on from the
flawed parliamentary elections, and based on the unrecognized 1996 constitution,
Lukashenko announced early in 2001 that presidential elections would be
held. International monitors noted sweeping human rights violations and
nondemocratic practices throughout the election period, including massive
vote counting fraud. These irregularities led the OSCE/ODIHR to find that
these elections also failed to meet Belarus OSCE commitments for democratic
Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful
assembly, religions and movement all increased in 2002. The authorities
maintain vigilant control over the press vis-à-vis near-monopolies
of the means of production of newsprint and the distribution of national
level broadcast media, such as television and radio. Efforts in the past
year to further infringe upon press freedoms included the closing of an
independent newspaper and continued harassment, beating or denial of accreditation
to independent journalists critical of the regime. At the end of 2002 the
government called for the re-registration of all media organizations. Additionally,
although several Internet service providers have emerged in Belarus, they
are all state controlled.
The massive nuclear accident (April 26, 1986) at the Chernobyl power
plant, across the border in Ukraine, had a devastating effect on Belarus;
as a result of the radiation release, agriculture in a large part of the
country was destroyed, and many villages were abandoned. Resettlement and
medical costs were substantial and long-term.
In 2000, Belarus managed to unify its currency exchange rates, tightened
its monetary policy, and partially liberalized the foreign currency market.
These developments led to the conclusion of a staff-monitored program in
cooperation with the IMF, addressing, among other topics price and wage
liberalization, a widening of privatization, fiscal reform, the adoption
of international accounting standards in the banking sector, and the repeal
of several egregious laws and decrees to improve the investment climate.
The program was conducted between April and September 2001, with relatively