Belarus (Listeni/bɛləˈruːs/ bel-ə-rooss; Belarusian: Белару́сь Bielaruś pronounced [bʲɛlaˈrusʲ]; Russian: Белару́сь, Респу́блика Беларусь Belarus’, Respublika Belarus’), officially the Republic of Belarus, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Hrodna (Grodno), Homiel (Gomel), Mahilyow (Mogilev) and Vitsebsk (Vitebsk). Over forty percent of its 207,600 square kilometres (80,200 sq mi) is forested, and its strongest economic sectors are service industries and manufacturing.
Belarus lies between latitudes 51° and 57° N, and longitudes 23° and 33° E. Its extension from north to south is 560 km (350 mi), from west to east is 650 km (400 mi). It is landlocked, relatively flat, and contains large tracts of marshy land. According to a 2005 estimate by the United Nations, 40% of Belarus is covered by forests. Many streams and 11,000 lakes are found in Belarus. Three major rivers run through the country: the Neman, the Pripyat, and the Dnieper. The Neman flows westward towards the Baltic sea and the Pripyat flows eastward to the Dnieper; the Dnieper flows southward towards the Black Sea.
The highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (Dzyarzhynsk Hill) at 345 metres (1,132 ft), and the lowest point is on the Neman River at 90 m (295 ft). The average elevation of Belarus is 160 m (525 ft) above sea level. The climate features mild to cold winters, with average January temperatures ranges from −4 °C (24.8 °F) in southwest (Brest) to −8 °C (17.6 °F) in northeast (Vitebsk), and cool and moist summers with an average temperature of 18 °C (64.4 °F). Belarus has an average annual rainfall of 550 to 700 mm (21.7 to 27.6 in). The country is in the transitional zone between continental climates and maritime climates. ]]
Natural resources include peat deposits, small quantities of oil and natural gas, granite, dolomite (limestone), marl, chalk, sand, gravel, and clay. About 70% of the radiation from neighboring Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster entered Belarusian territory, and as of 2005 about a fifth of Belarusian land (principally farmland and forests in the southeastern provinces) continues to be affected by radiation fallout. The United Nations and other agencies have aimed to reduce the level of radiation in affected areas, especially through the use of caesium binders and rapeseed cultivation, which are meant to decrease soil levels of caesium-137.
Belarus borders five countries: Latvia to the north, Lithuania to the northwest, Poland to the west, Russia to the north and the east, and Ukraine to the south. Treaties in 1995 and 1996 demarcated Belarus's borders with Latvia and Lithuania, but Belarus failed to ratify a 1997 treaty establishing the Belarus-Ukraine border. Belarus and Lithuania ratified final border demarcation documents in February 2007.
According to the 2009 census, the population is 9,503,807. Ethnic Belarusians constitute 83.7% of Belarus' total population. The next largest ethnic groups are: Russians (8.3%), Poles (3.1%), and Ukrainians (1.7%). Belarus' two official languages are Russian and Belarusian; Russian is the main language, used by 72% of the population, while Belarusian, the second official language, is only used by 11.9%. Minorities also speak Polish, Ukrainian and Eastern Yiddish.
Belarus has a population density of about 50 people per square kilometer (127 per sq mi); 70% of its total population is concentrated in urban areas. Minsk, the nation's capital and largest city, was home to 1,836,808 residents in 2009. Gomel, with a population of 481,000, is the second-largest city and serves as the capital of the Homiel Voblast. Other large cities are Mogilev (365,100), Vitebsk (342,400), Hrodna (314,800) and Brest (298,300).
Like many other European countries, Belarus has a negative population growth rate and a negative natural growth rate. In 2007, Belarus's population declined by 0.41% and its fertility rate was 1.22, well below the replacement rate. Its net migration rate is +0.38 per 1,000, indicating that Belarus experiences slightly more immigration than emigration. As of 2007, 69.7% of Belarus's population is aged 14 to 64; 16% is under 14, and 14.6% is 65 or older. Its population is also aging: while the current median age is 37, it is estimated that Belarusians' median age group will be between 55 and 65 in 2050. There are about 0.88 males per female in Belarus. The average life expectancy is 68.7 years (63.0 years for males and 74.9 years for females). Over 99% of Belarusians aged 15 and older are literate.
Belarus is divided into six regions (Belarusian: вобласць, Russian: о́бласть), which are named after the cities that serve as their administrative centers. Each region has a provincial legislative authority, called a region council (Belarusian: абласны Савет Дэпутатаў, Russian: областно́й Сове́т Депутатов), which is elected by its residents, and a provincial executive authority called a region administration (Belarusian: абласны выканаўчы камітэт, Russian: областно́й исполнительный комите́т), whose chairman is appointed by the president. Regions are further subdivided into raions, commonly translated as districts (Belarusian: раён, Russian: район).
Each raion has its own legislative authority, or raion council, (Belarusian: раённы Савет Дэпутатаў, Russian: районный Сове́т Депутатов) elected by its residents, and an executive authority or raion administration appointed by higher executive powers. As of 2002, there are six regions, 118 raions, 102 towns, and 108 urbanized settlements. The city of Minsk is split into nine districts and enjoys special status as the nation's capital. It is run by an executive committee and has been granted a charter of self-rule.
Most of the Belarusian economy remains state-controlled and has been described as "Soviet-style." Thus, 51.2% of Belarusians are employed by state-controlled companies, 47.4% are employed by private companies (of which 5.7% are partially foreign-owned), and 1.4% are employed by foreign companies. The country relies on Russia for various imports, including petroleum. Important agricultural products include potatoes and cattle byproducts, including meat. In 1994, Belarus's main exports included heavy machinery (especially tractors), agricultural products, and energy products.
Historically, textiles and wood processing have constituted a large part of industrial activity. At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus was one of the world's most industrially developed states by percentage of GDP as well as the richest CIS member-state. Economically, Belarus involved itself in the CIS, Eurasian Economic Community, and Union with Russia.
In the 1990s, however, industrial production plunged due to decreases in imports, investment, and demand for Belarusian products from its trading partners. GDP only began to rise in 1996; the country was the faster-recovering former Soviet republic in the terms of its economy. In 2006, GDP amounted to US$83.1 billion in purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars (estimate), or about $8,100 per capita. In 2005, GDP increased by 9.9%; the inflation rate averaged 9.5%.
As of 2006, Belarus's largest trading partner is Russia, accounting for nearly half of total trade, and the European Union is Belarus's next largest trading partner, with nearly a third of foreign trade. Because of its failure to protect labour rights, however, Belarus lost its EU Generalized System of Preferences status on 21 June 2007, which raised tariff rates to their prior most favoured nation levels. Belarus applied to become a member of the World Trade Organization in 1993.
The labor force consists of more than four million people, among whom women hold slightly more jobs than men. In 2005, nearly a quarter of the population was employed by industrial factories. Employment is also high in agriculture, manufacturing sales, trading goods, and education. The unemployment rate, according to government statistics, was 1.5% in 2005. There were 679,000 unemployed Belarusians, two-thirds of whom were women. The unemployment rate has been in decline since 2003, and the overall rate of employment is the highest since statistics were first compiled in 1995.
The currency of Belarus is the Belarusian ruble (BYR). The currency was introduced in May 1992, replacing the Soviet ruble. The first coins of the Republic of Belarus were issued on 27 December 1996. The ruble was reintroduced with new values in 2000 and has been in use ever since. As part of the Union of Russia and Belarus, both states have discussed using a single currency along the same lines as the Euro. This led to a proposal that the Belarusian Ruble be discontinued in favour of the Russian ruble (RUB), starting as early as 1 January 2008. As of August 2007, the National Bank of Belarus no longer pegged the Belarusian Ruble to the Russian Ruble.
The banking system of Belarus consists of thirty state-owned banks and one privatised bank. On 23 May 2011, the Belarusian Ruble depreciated 56% against the U.S. dollar. The depreciation was even steeper on the black market and financial collapse seemed imminent as citizens rushed to exchange their rubles for dollars, euros, durable goods, and canned goods. On 1 June 2011, Belarus requested an economic rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.
The tourism sector is undeveloped, and burdensome Soviet-era visa requirements (including a letter of invitation from an approved source in Belarus) are a disincentive to tourists.
The culture of Belarus is the product of a millennium of development under the impact of a number of diverse factors. These include the physical environment; the ethnographic background of Belarusians (the merger of Slavic newcomers with Baltic natives); the paganism of the early settlers and their hosts; Byzantine Christianity as a link to the Orthodox religion and its literary tradition; the country's lack of natural borders; the flow of rivers toward both the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea; and the variety of religions in the region (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam).
An early Western influence on Belarusian culture was Magdeburg Law—charters that granted municipal self-rule and were based on the laws of German cities. These charters were granted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by grand dukes and kings to a number of cities, including Brest, Hrodna, Slutsk, and Minsk. The tradition of self-government not only facilitated contacts with Western Europe but also nurtured self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and a sense of civic responsibility.
In 1517-19 Frantsishak Skaryna (ca. 1490-1552) translated the Bible into the vernacular (Old Belarusian). Under the communist regime, Skaryna's work was vastly undervalued, but in independent Belarus he became an inspiration for the emerging national consciousness as much for his advocacy of the Belarusian language as for his humanistic ideas.
From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, when the ideas of humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation were alive in Western Europe, these ideas were debated in Belarus as well because of trade relations there and because of the enrollment of noblemen's and burghers' sons in Western universities. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation also contributed greatly to the flourishing of polemical writings as well as to the spread of printing houses and schools.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Poland and Russia were making deep political and cultural inroads in Belarus by assimilating the nobility into their respective cultures, the rulers succeeded in associating "Belarusian" culture primarily with peasant ways, folklore, ethnic dress, and ethnic customs, with an overlay of Christianity. This was the point of departure for some national activists who attempted to attain statehood for their nation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The development of Belarusian literature, spreading the idea of nationhood for the Belarusians, was epitomized by the literary works of Yanka Kupala (1882–1942) and Yakub Kolas (1882–1956). The works of these poets, along with several other outstanding writers, became the classics of modern Belarusian literature by writing widely on rural themes (the countryside was where the writers heard the Belarusian language) and by modernizing the Belarusian literary language, which had been little used since the sixteenth century. Postindependence authors in the 1990s continued to use rural themes widely.
Unlike literature's focus on rural life, other fields of culture—painting, sculpture, music, film, and theater—centered on urban reality, universal concerns, and universal values.
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