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Belarus

Geography
Credit: mapsof.net
Map of Belarus

​​Belarus covers 207,600 square kilometers. It is a relatively flat country located in the Eastern European Plain, without distinctly high mountain ranges, the highest peak being 345 m Dzerzhinsk Mountain in the Highland of Minsk. Pripet Marshes in the South and South-Western region served as the only naturally occurring barrier in Belarus. The country’s land border spans 3,642 km meeting Russia (1,312 km) in the East and North, Latvia (161 km) and Lithuania (640 km) in the North-West, Poland (418 km) in the West and Ukraine (1,111 km) in the South. It does not have a maritime border. Belarus is using time zone GMT+2 and Daylight Saving Time. 43.7 % of the land of Belarus is arable, however, 42.7 % of the country is covered in forest.
Country is located in the temperate climate zone. The average air temperature in January varies from –4.5°C to –8°C, but in July – from +17°C to +18.5°C. The average annual precipitation ranges from 750 to 1000 mm.
The most strategically important minerals is potassium carbonate that is used as fertilizer (with Belarus having one of the largest deposits in Europe), various salts and phosphates. Although Belarus has crude oil, it is extracted in small volumes (about 12 to 13 % of the consumed amount), therefore the rest of the required oil and natural gas is imported from Russia.

Population

Photo: languagesoftheworld.info
(left) native language of Belarus peoples (green – Belarussian, blue – Russian),
(right) most used languages

The population of Belarus is 9,413,446 (as of October 1, 2019), of whom 4,351,473 (46.2%) are men, and 5,061,973 (53.8%) are women (1.163 women per man in Belarus). 7 299 989 (77.5%) of the population live in urban areas and 2 113 457 (22.5%) live in rural areas. 83.7% are Belarussians, 8.3% are Russians, 3.1% are Poles, 1.7% are Ukrainians, 2.4% are other nationalities and 0.9% people of unspecified origin live in Belarus. Russian is the most widely spoken language in the country (official state language), used by 70.2% of the Belarus population, followed by Belarusian (official state language), used by 23.4% of the population, other (including Polish and Ukrainian) – 3.1% but 3.3% of the population did not specify the language they use in everyday life.
The majority of Belarusians are Christians, more precisely, (in descending order) Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran. The largest is the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which embraces about 82% of the population (of which 18% actively attend church services) and the Catholic Church which embraces 12% of population. At the same time, the country has a large number of atheists, about 41% of the total population. The Belarussian authorities support the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, but churches belonging to Protestant denominations do not enjoy state support.

 

Administrative division

Photo: wikipedia.org
Administrative districts and republican city of Minsk

The administrative territorial division of Belarus consists of three levels. The first level comprises six regions that are concentrated around the major cities in the region: Minsk, Gomel, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev and Vitebsk. Minsk as a republican significance city is also singled out on the first level. There are 22 districts in Minsk region, 16 in Brest, 21 in Vitebsk, 21 in Gomel, 17 in Grodno and 21 in Mogilev.
Minsk is the capital of the country, the country's educational, political and economic center. More than a third of total foreign trade is concentrated there.
At the second administrative-territorial level, the country is divided into 118 districts and 10 towns of regional significance. They usually have at least 50,000 inhabitants each. These cities are the largest administrative, economic and cultural centers of the regions, with developed industry and social infrastructure. A city with less than 50,000 inhabitants of industrial or historical significance, development prospects and a growing population can also gain this status. Of the 10 cities of regional importance, five are regional centers and three are district centers, as well as the towns of Zhodino and Novopolotsk. The third administrative-territorial level comprises 102 towns of district significance, as well as 90 town-type villages (including resorts, workers villages), 1295 rural councils (combining several rural settlements are included in districts), as well as 24 towns of district importance and Minsk region. The inhabited points have no local councils of deputies and executive bodies.
Belarus Parliament has two chambers. In the Upper Chamber (in Republican Council) 8 representatives are proportionally elected from each region and from Minsk (total 56). And the same number of representatives is appointed by the President. The Upper chamber has 112 seats. The Chamber of representatives (Lower Chamber) consists of 110 members, each elected from one 1 mandate district. The election of local council deputies is based on the principle of 1 mandate district. To elect regional (district) or Minsk Deputy council in each first level administrative territorial unit 40-60 election districts are formed. 15-25 election districts to elect deputy councils for cities subordinated to this districts and 11-15 election districts to elect village country council.

 

Economy
Credit: eurodialogue.eu
Druzhba oil pipeline (in green)

According to the World Bank data, Belarus's GDP reached $ 60.45 billion in 2019, and GDP per capita at purchasing power parity is $ 17,741.86 (2018). In February 2020, inflation level reached 4.4% a year. In contrast, according to the International Labor Organization, the unemployment rate was 4% in 2019 (officially the unemployment rate in Belarus is below 1%, but in reality it is higher because it is often more beneficial not to register for unemployment).
The Belarusian economy is closely linked to Russia - according to information published by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Belarus exports about 40% of its production to Russia, while its imports from Russia account for about 55.6% of total imports. The EU is the second largest trading partner of Belarus, which exports about 27% of its production to Belarus. Imports from the EU to Belarus account for about 20% of the country's total imports. Other important trading partners of Belarus are Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Moldova.
Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and forms a single economic space with Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Belarus territory is crossed by the Druzhba oil pipeline, which carried about 50 million tonnes of crude oil or 21% of Russia's total oil exports per year, and the Yamal-Yevropa gas pipeline, which carried about 44.3 billion m3 of gas in 2011-2012. or 23% of all Russian gas exports. There are several refineries in Belarus that process crude oil supplied through Druzhba into various petroleum products.
Belarus is dependent on Russian oil and natural gas imports. Every year there is a dispute over the prices of these energy resources. Belarus wants the same price for natural gas as Russia's Smolensk Oblast (about $ 70 per 1,000 m3), but in 2020 countries agreed on $ 127 per 1,000 m3, which is lower than for other countries. In addition, since the beginning of 2020, no oil supply agreement has been reached between the countries and Belarus had to look for alternative oil suppliers. Belarus acquired oil from Norway, Azerbaijan, Russian independent oil companies and traders, but the amount was insufficient. Indirectly, energy supplies and prices are related to the “deeper integration” of Russia and Belarus within the Union State, which was activated at the end of 2018. The two countries have very different positions on integration: Minsk does not want to significantly reduce its sovereignty, but Moscow is not ready to maintain or increase its level of economic support without "deeper integration", which requires not only economic but highly political integration and establishment of supranational structures.
In Belarus there are several "barriers" to private entrepreneurship. The national economy is dominated by large state-owned enterprises, but the share of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises has been steadily declining since 2012. The development of private business in Belarus is hampered by legal barriers, high-interest debts (sometimes up to 30%) and instability of tax policy. The employment of the Belarusian population in the private sector has not changed since 2009, which may indicate that the sector is not attractive for the Belarusian population.

Photo: belarusdigest.ru
China New Silk Road Project

Belarus also has economic relations with China. Relations between the two countries are based on resolving Belarus' short-term economic problems and China's long-term trade ambitions in Europe. Given China's ambition to penetrate all global markets, it has established friendly relations with Belarus as it is seen as a gateway to trade with Europe, seeking to pave the way for the planned New Silk Road project (to connect China with Europe, crossing the Belarus territory). Trade between China and Belarus can be characterized by a large trade balance deficit.
The main project of the Belarusian-Chinese cooperation is the industrial park "Velikiy Kamen", which has the status of a special economic zone. In 2019, there were 42 working companies, including China's ZTE and Huawei. Belarus and China also have joint industrial projects, such as a joint car manufacturing company BelGee. But along with industrial projects, China is also offering its own workforce, which has a negative impact on the domestic market.
Belarus is trying to reduce its dependence on Russia and sees China as a pragmatic alternative to the EU, which lays down a number of conditions (on human rights issues, etc.). For example, after Russia refused to grant $ 600 million in debt refinancing to Belarus in 2019, China provided $ 500 million to Belarus.

Key figures of Belarus

Belarus is infrequently referred to as the 'USSR reserve'. Since acquiring independence in 1991, the narrative of the re-sovietisation has existed, not through inertia, but through a conscious decision of people and the ruling authorities. Careless reforms of the market economy over three years have led to open frustrations in society. Ruling authorities, academicions, red directors (employees of the former USSR nomenclature) supported pro-Soviet discourse.

Photo: euronews.com
Alexander Lukashenko

In 1994, all but two of the candidates came forward with slogans about the reintegration of former Soviet republics. This situation was used by Lukashenko, who initiated a referendum a year after his election, which made Russian the second official language, and the President obtained the right to dissolve parliament and support the course of economic integration with Russia. The state symbols practically became analogous to those of the Soviet period. Since then, A.Lukashenko has actively supported the course of rapprochement with Russia and other post-Soviet nations, deliberately promoting the Russification of Belarus. Some sources even suggest that Lukashenko was ready to become President of the Union State in the 1990s, but when Vladimir Putin came to power this scenario dissolved. In fact, Lukashenko has, since then, pursued the principle of balancing his policy, seeking to retain as much independence as possible from the Kremlin. Alexander Lukashenko was the first time elected President of Belarus in 1994. He has since been re-elected five times (most recently on 11 October 2015). In his choice of authoritarian leadership, A.Lukashenko is convinced that he is the only one who can lead Belarus. He is ambitious and stubborn and endowed with "survival" abilities.
He will use various possible means to counter possible threats to the regime. He controls state industry, but stagnation in the country's economy leaves less and less room for maneuver.
A.Lukashenko is the person who takes the final decisions in any field. His fiduciary circle is narrow, with people who are easily controlled, usually with no expressive individuality or ambition.
Under authoritarianism, it is natural that leading people in the country are very close to the leader. A.Lukashenko is the main and only person who personally chooses his closest circle of employees. He has created a system of constant independent power, which, like in the case of Russia, resembles a peculiar kind of politburo. Unlike the Soviet era, this political office is informal. Known indicators of a person's influence are, first of all, the number of subordinates, financial resources, control over the spheres of public life, activity that nominally reflects power. It should also be recognized that Belarusian business and power structures are sufficiently closed, which makes it difficult to assess the influence of definite individuals.

Photo: belprauda.org
Valery Vakulchik

Belarus is the only country which has inherited the Soviet Union’s special service - the State Security Committee KGB. Since 2012 it has been headed by Valery Vakulchik (born June 19, 1964). Graduate of the USSR KGB military counter-intelligence higher courses and Russian Academy of Management (2011). From 1985 to 1991 he served in the Armed Forces, and from 2008 in the National Security offices.
In the rating of the most influential figures in Belarus in 2017, V.Vakulchik ranked second just after President A.Lukashenko. His positions in the power elite is described as extremely stable. A.Lukashenko has never publicly criticized the current KGB leader.
The head of the KGB enjoys almost unlimited authority. The arrest of millionaire Yuri Chizh, who had become very close to the President, turned into one of the most notable events in the battle among elite groups. In a period of economic hardships, A.Lukashenko has most likely ordered the richest businessmen to share their wealth with the state previously gained through regime support. V.Vacakchik, who has so far avoided publicity, has come into the spotlight. The "hunting" of entrepreneurs can be seen as the working tendency of the former KGB leader. Enterpreneurs among them Yevgeny Baskin ("Servolyuk"), Oleg Zuhovicki ("Zov-Mebel"), Alexander Pavlovsky ("Biokom"), Alexander Muraviev ("Motovelo"), Gylman brothers (“Konsul”), Japrincev family – father and son were detained on suspicion of tax evasion.
It should be noted that V.Vaculchik's predecessors were active in fighting the opposition. A.Lukashenko supports the shift of the special service from repression of the opposition to the fight against corruption and tax evasion. This is particularly important in the current difficult economic situation in Belarus.
The KGB is also actively turning against the Byelorrusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine. Lawsuits involving volunteer militants who participate on the Kyiv side rather than on the side of Donbass separatists have received great resonance. An important factor in career development is probably the acquaintance with A.Lukashenko’s son Victor Lukashenko (both of them served in the Brest Borderguard). By reaching the “political horizon” at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, V.Vaculchik gained an opportunity to improve his personal well-being. He owns land in the elite district of Minsk along with other officials and state employees.

Photo: belaruspartisan.org
Victor Lukashenko

Among the most influential figures are the president's son and security assistant, V.Lukashenko (who regularly meets with Arab countries to attract investment), Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey (personally responsible for the relative thaw between the EU and Belarus), former Minister of Defense, State Secretary of the Security Council Andrei Ravkov, former prime minister and current chairman of the Eurasian Economic Union College Mikhail Myasnikovich, Viktor Sheyman, Manager of Presidential Issues Vladimir Semashko, Belarusian Ambassador to Russia.
Given the importance of the state system and the presidential position in the country, the big question is the heir or successor of the current Belarusian leader. There are no clear rules defined for the process of succession, so changing the leader can potentially lead to destabilization. The Kremlin may possibly play a role in determining A.Lukashenko's successor. The redistribution of power is likely to take place within the framework of the current elite nomenclature, and the power struggle between elite groups (business, regional, power) could intensify in a vacuum of power.
Some experts believe that sometimes A.Lukashenko's reliance on the need to make repeated changes in the constitution may be seen as a potential signal of the leader's intention to make provisions for handing over state power to his family (one of his three sons). The first official to start talking about this is the former politician and leader of the Respublika parliamentary group, which, referring to high-profile sources, told Belorusskaya Pravda that such a mechanism was already in place. For example, the eldest son, Victor, is appointed as the head of the Grodno district, automatically reaching the Upper Chamber, the Council of the Republic. Members of parliament would then elect a new president. This scenario would require a constitutional change that would require the president to be elected by the parliament rather than the public. By political logic, power could be transferred to his eldest son, Victor (born 1976), who is responsible for power structures. In 2013 an interview with the Ukrainian edition of Izvestia v Ukraine, A.Lukashenko did not deny that his eldest son, Viktor, could become the next president. Others believe A.Lukashenko will remain in power until the time comes to hand over the power to his youngest son, Nikolai (born in 2004), who regularly accompanies his father on official inter-state visits and at various official events. As the example of Azerbaijan shows, the transfer of power from father to son would be nothing extraordinary in post-Soviet space.

Photo: belaruspartisan.org
Vladimir Makey

As a potential A.Lukashenko's successors, the current Foreign Minister, V.Makey, is also mentioned (less known to the public, so it would be necessary to change the mechanism for the election of the president to the parliament). He is relatively well known in Europe. He also had extensive experience in domestic politics, previously serving as head of the Presidential Administration. Although he has officially stated that the deployment of NATO forces in neighboring countries threatens regional security (in line with the rhetoric of the Kremlin and Minsk), it does not reflect his true views, writes Nasha Gazeta. In the West, he is called the most acceptable successor to Lukashenko. It is possible that this factor could also be taken into account in Moscow, when it opposed V.Makey as a potential successor of A.Lukashenko.
The Russian edition of Ogonok in March 2020 mentioned Natalia Kochanov, a former head of the Belarusian Presidential Administration (PA) and Speaker of the Upper House, as a potential political successor to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Photo: kommersant.ru
Natalia Kochanova

 

Other potential successors to Lukashenko include current Prime Minister Sergey Rumas, who, while still a vice-prime minister, advocated for economic reforms, former Speaker of the Upper chamber of the Belarussian Parliament and Mikhail Myasnikovitch, supporter of the Union State, chairman of the current Eurasian Economic Union Commission, Marianna Shchotkina, the former minister of employment and social defence and present assistant of N.Kochanova, influential information technology entrepreneur Viktor Procopenia. On February 24, 2020, the Russian edition of the "Nasha versija" indicated that the first vice-premier Dmitry Krutoy and M.Myasnikovitch, 40, are considered as the political successors of A.Lukashenko by the Kremlin.

 

Domestic policy
Photo: udf.by
Alexandr Lukashenko and Nikolay Lukashenko

As for the executive branch, Belarusian political scientist Vladimir Roud called the government of the country an economic and administrative agency, subordinated to A.Lukashenko. The President appoints and can remote the Prime Minister and other Ministers of State and he himself chairs the meetings of the Council of Ministers. The government implements the decisions made by the president and his administration without any genuine initiative on its part. Ministers are rarely replaced. The Council of Ministers consists of 24 ministries and seven committees (including the National Security Committee).
The judiciary power in Belarus is also under the strict control of the President, as reflected in the Supreme Court of the country – the Constitutional Court. It consists of 12 members, half of whom are appointed by Lukashenko and the other half by the Council of the Republic. Since 1996, the Constitutional Court has not ruled that any law is unconstitutional, and the court needs approval by A.Lukashenko to open a case.
Although quite large-scale staff shifts are carried out on a regular basis in Belarus, state key officials are generally not affected. The most frequent replacements are Belarusian ambassadors abroad, regional officials, and county executive committee staff.
Most Belarusian media are under state control and publish propaganda in support of the regime. Independent journalism in Belarus is severely restricted – the country is prosecuting, physically influencing, blackmailing or otherwise trying to curtail independent journalists. Despite the fact that Belarusian state television channels have begun to invite opponents, to discussion shows this has not changed the nature of the public debate in Belarus.
Corruption in Belarus is not as widespread as in other post-Soviet countries. Unlike other authoritarian regimes, open corruption is not tolerated. At the same time, it should be noted that the process of fighting corruption is not transparent and infrequently is selective.
 

Foreign policy

Belarus's foreign policy is mainly determined by its President Alexander Lukashenko. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey, who previously chaired the Presidential Administration (2008-2012), may also be mentioned as one of the names words in the implementation of the external vector. Some foreign policy researchers describe Belarusian politics as balancing or "sitting on two chairs", but in reality Moscow's influence on Minsk is much greater than that of the West. One of the factors to keep in mind is that A.Lukashenko's primary foreign policy goal is to maintain his regime and stay in power as long as possible. Moscow's support is essential to Lukashenko's legitimacy.
It should be noted that when A.Lukashenko came to power, he was in favor of the rapprochement between Russia and Belarus (Union State Integration Project). There have been several periods of rapprochement and disagreement (in trade – gas, meat, milk wars) between the two countries. Through economic levers, Russia has sought to gain more control over its strategic ally. Whenever tensions between Moscow and Minsk escalated, Belarus was demonstrating greater willingness to lean to the West to bring about (urgent) decision-making for its occupants, such as economic support from Russia and the West, including easing of sanctions, delaying the establishment of a Russian military base in Belarus. Retard the privatization of Belarusian companies (preventing them from getting into the hands of people close to the Kremlin). The tension is based on a different understanding of cooperation. Russia wants as much control as possible, while A.Lukashenko believes that Belarus has shown sufficient loyalty to Moscow and therefore deserves a reward.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Belarus is a member of all major Russian founded organizations – Union State,
Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization,
Commonwealth of Independent States

At present, Belarus serves as a buffer zone between Russia and the West. In order to gain some independence, it needs support points elsewhere in the world outside Russia and the West (most likely, too much rapprochement would trigger a sharp Moscow response). In recent years, Minsk has demonstrated a desire to expand its cooperation with Beijing and Central Asia countries.
Even though formally seeking to create the image of a neutral country, Minsk is in fact considered to be Russia's closest ally, as evidenced by its participation in joint integration projects (Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)), as well as joint military exercises and Belarusian objections to the increase of NATO forces in the region. In fact, Moscow regards Belarus as its vassal state, an integral part of its military security (continuation of the Western strategic direction)
The Belarusian research institute "Politicheskaya Sphera" has stated that Belarus is the most dependent post-Soviet state of Russia. Other countries, including CSTO and EEU members, are pursuing more autonomous policies and cooperating more with the EU, NATO and the US. Belarus is fully dependent on Russia economically (market outlets, energy resource supplies, subsidies, loans).
Russian foreign policy professionals are aware that any reorientation of Minsk to the West is not possible in the near future. Limited rapprochement of Belarus and the Western countries is a symbolic normalization of relations following a dramatic "freeze" on relations. It must be remembered that public criticism of Moscow indicates that the integration of the two countries is not as smooth as the Kremlin would like it to be, but the disintegration of both countries is questionable.
Although Lukashenko has repeatedly hinted that the annexation of Crimea violated international law, Minsk voted in favor of Moscow in the vote by the UN General Assembly.