About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos

Belarus - SOCIETY

Belarus - Population

In July 1994, an estimated 10,404,862 people (fifty persons per square kilometer) lived in Belarus, with additional populations of ethnic Belarusians living in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Ethnic Belarusians in the West (living primarily in Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, the United States, Canada, and Argentina) numbered more than 1 million.

In 1994 the annual population growth rate was estimated at 0.32 percent, resulting from a birth rate of 13.1 births per 1,000 population, a death rate of 11.2 deaths per 1,000 population, and a net migration rate of 1.3 persons per 1,000 population. The estimated 1994 average life expectancy at birth in Belarus was 66.2 years for males and 75.8 years for females. The annual population growth rate is expected to decrease slowly well into the next century as a result of fears of birth defects caused by Chornobyl' and the difficult economic situation.

Population growth in Belarus has declined because of a rapid drop in fertility rates (an estimated 1.88 children per woman in 1994) and because of a sharp increase in infant and child mortality, which had been in decline before the Chornobyl' accident in 1986. Improvements in the infant mortality rate, which was estimated at 18.9 per 1,000 live births in 1994, were further blocked by poor maternal health, poor prenatal care, and frequent use of abortion as a means of birth control. Belarus has instituted a pronatal policy to counteract women's reluctance to have children, but difficult economic conditions and fear of birth defects caused by environmental pollution continue to be major causes of the decline in the birthrate.

Falling birthrates have also contributed to the graying of the population. This will affect the country in a number of ways, including the allocation of funds from its budget. With fewer workers supporting more pensioners, the administration will be paying more in pensions than it collects in taxes.

The population's sex structure was most profoundly affected by World War II. The large loss of male lives during the war ensured not only that there would be a surplus of women, but that this surplus would persist for at least another generation.

A law passed in September 1992 gave the entire population of Belarus an automatic right to citizenship. This included all the ethnic Russians who had moved there over the years, not the least of whom were military personnel, officials, and policy makers. However, many declined to acquire Belarusian citizenship, so that Belarus was sometimes represented or administered by ethnic Russians who are residents, but not citizens of Belarus, as, for example, by its diplomats abroad.

In 1992 Belarus's largest cities were Minsk, the capital, with 1.7 million inhabitants; Homyel', with 517,000; Vitsyebsk, with 373,000; Mahilyow, with 364,000; Hrodna, with 291,000; and Brest, with 284,000. The republic included more than 100 cities and towns, twelve of which had a population of 100,000 or more. Of the total population, 68 percent lived in cities and 32 percent lived in rural areas in 1994. These figures resemble those for the former Soviet Union as a whole.

<>Ethnic Composition

Updated population figures for Belarus.

Belarus - Ethnic Composition

The 1989 census of the Soviet Union, its last, showed a mainly Slavic population in Belorussia: Belorussians (77.8 percent), Russians (13.2 percent), Poles (4.1 percent), Ukrainians (2.9 percent), and others (2.0 percent). Other ethnic groups include Lithuanians, Latvians, and Tatars. A large number of Russians immigrated to Belarus immediately after World War II to make up for the local labor shortage, caused in part by Stalin's mass deportations, and to take part in rebuilding the country. Others came as part of Stalin's program of Russification.

There has been little conflict with the major non-Belarusian group, the Russians, who account for about 13 percent of the population. The Russification campaign in what is now Belarus used a mixture of subtle and not-so-subtle coercion. The campaign was widely successful, to the extent that Russian became the language of choice for much of the population. One-third of the respondents in a 1992 poll said they consider Russian and Belarusian history to be one and the same. A large number of organized Russian cultural bodies and publications exist in Belarus.

Ethnic Poles, who account for some 4 percent of the population, live in the western part of the country, near the Polish border. They retain their traditions and their Roman Catholic religion, which has been the cause of friction with Orthodox Belarusians, who also see a decidedly political bent to these cultural activities.

Ukrainians account for approximately 3 percent of the population. Belarusians and Ukrainians have been on friendly terms and have faced similar problems in trying to maintain their ethnic and cultural identities in the face of Russification by Moscow.

Jews have been present in Belarus since medieval times, but by the late eighteenth century were restricted to the Pale of Settlement and later to cities and towns within the Pale. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belorussia and accounted for more than 50 percent of the population in cities and towns. The 1989 Soviet census showed that Jews accounted for only 1.1 percent of the population, the result of genocide during World War II and subsequent emigration.




"Language is not only a means of communication, but also the soul of a nation, the foundation and the most important part of its culture." So begins the January 1990 Law About Languages in the Belorussian SSR, which made Belarusian the sole official language of the republic.

The Belarusian language is an East Slavic tongue closely related to Russian and Ukrainian, with many loanwords from Polish (a West Slavic language) and more recently from Russian. The standard literary language, first codified in 1918, is based on the dialect spoken in the central part of the country and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Under Polish influence, a parallel Latin alphabet (lacinka) was used by some writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is still used today by some Roman Catholics in Belarus and abroad.

One early proponent of the Belorussian language, poet Frantsishak Bahushyevich (1840-1900), the father of modern Belorussian literature and a participant in the 1863 uprising, was inspired by the fact that many 200- and 300-year-old documents written in Belorussian could be read and understood easily in modern times. The theme of the native language as a repository of national identity and an expression of aspiration to nationhood has been the leitmotif of Belorussian literature and polemics beginning in the late nineteenth century.

Although the tsarist government regarded the Belorussians as well as the Ukrainians as another branch of Russians, not as a separate nation, the Belorussian language was registered in the first systematic census of the Russian Empire in 1897. In the early 1920s, Belorussian language and culture flourished, and the language was promoted as the official medium of the communist party and the government as well as of scholarly, scientific, and educational establishments. Most primary and secondary schools switched to instruction in Belorussian, and institutions of higher education gradually made the switch as well. The Belorussian State University was founded in 1921, the Institute of Belorussian Culture was founded in 1922, and a number of other institutions of higher learning also opened. The interests of other minorities in the republic were taken into account in a July 1924 decree that confirmed equal rights for the four principal languages of the republic: Belorussian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish.

With the advent of perestroika, national activists launched a campaign of restoring the Belorussian language to the place it had enjoyed during the 1920s. To urge the government to make Belorussian the official language of the republic, the Belarusian Language Society was established in June 1989 with poet-scholar Nil Hilyevich as president.

Belorussia's CPSU leadership, consisting almost exclusively of Russified technocrats, ignored all the government resolutions and decisions on languages. However, it could not ignore the general language trend throughout the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, particularly in the neighboring Baltic states and Ukraine, where national movements were stronger and exerted an influence on events in the Belorussian SSR. After months of meetings, rallies, conferences, and heated debates in the press, on January 26, 1990, the Supreme Soviet voted to make Belarusian the official language of the state, effective September 1, 1990. The law included provisions for protecting the languages of minorities and allowed up to ten years to make the transition from Russian to Belarusian.

Despite the provisions, implementation of the law has encountered both active and passive resistance: many people still want their children to be educated in the Russian language rather than in Belarusian, and some government officials agree to give interviews only in Russian. According to data assembled in 1992 by the Sociology Center of the Belarusian State University, some 60 percent of those polled prefer to use Russian in their daily life, 75 percent favor bilingualism in state institutions, and only 17 percent favor having the government declare Belarusian the sole official language. One Western source reported that in the early 1990s, only 11 percent of the population, most of whom lived in the countryside, were fluent in Belarusian.

Since late 1992, there had been a growing demand that the Russian language be given the same official status as Belarusian. The results of the four-question referendum of May 1995, which included a question on whether Russian should be an official language, put an end to any uncertainty; the populace voted "yes."

Belarus - Religion

Before 1917 Belorussia had 2,466 religious communities, including 1,650 Orthodox, 127 Roman Catholic, 657 Jewish, thirtytwo Protestant, and several Muslim communities. Under the communists (who were officially atheists), the activities of these communities were severely restricted. Many religious communities were destroyed and their leaders exiled or executed; the remaining communities were sometimes co-opted by the government for its own ends, as in the effort to instill patriotism during World War II.

In 1993 one Belarusian publication reported the numbers of religious communities as follows: Orthodox, 787; Roman Catholic, 305; Pentecostal, 170; Baptist, 141; Old Believer, twenty-six; Seventh-Day Adventist, seventeen; Apostolic Christian, nine; Uniate, eight; New Apostolic, eight; Muslim, eight; Jewish, seven; and other, fifteen.

Although the Orthodox Church was devastated during World War II and continued to decline until the early 1980s because of government policies, it underwent a small revival with the onset of perestroika and the celebration in 1988 of the 1,000- year anniversary of Christianity in Russia. In 1990 Belorussia was designated an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, creating the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In the early 1990s, 60 percent of the population identified themselves as Orthodox. The church had one seminary, three convents, and one monastery. A Belarusian theological academy was to be opened in 1995.

Soviet policies toward the Roman Catholic Church were strongly influenced by the Catholics' recognition of an outside authority, the pope, as head of the church, as well as by the close historical ties of the church in Belorussia with Poland. In 1989 the five official Roman Catholic dioceses, which had existed since World War II and had been without a bishop, were reorganized into five dioceses (covering 455 parishes) and the archdiocese of Minsk and Mahilyow. In the early 1990s, figures for the Catholic population in Belarus ranged from 8 percent to 20 percent; one estimate identified 25 percent of the Catholics as ethnic Poles. The church had one seminary in Belarus.

The revival of religion in Belarus in the postcommunist era brought about a revival of the old historical conflict between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. This religious complexity is compounded by the two denominations' links to institutions outside the republic. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is headed by an ethnic Russian, Metropolitan Filaret, who heads an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Belarus is headed by an ethnic Pole, Archbishop Kazimir Sviontak, who has close ties to the church in Poland. However, despite these ties, Archbishop Sviontak, who had been a prisoner in the Soviet camps and a pastor in Pinsk for many years, has prohibited the display of Polish national symbols in Catholic churches in Belarus.

Fledgling Belarusian religious movements are having difficulties asserting themselves within these two major religious institutions because of the historical practice of preaching in Russian in the Orthodox churches and in Polish in the Catholic churches. Attempts to introduce the Belarusian language into religious life, including the liturgy, also have not met with wide success because of the cultural predominance of Russians and Poles in their respective churches, as well as the low usage of the Belarusian language in everyday life.

To a certain extent, the 1991 declaration of Belarus's independence and the 1990 law making Belarusian the official language of the republic have generated a new attitude toward the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some religiously uncommitted young people have turned to the Uniate Church in reaction to the resistance of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic hierarchies to accepting the Belarusian language as a medium of communication with their flock. Overall, however, national activists have had little success in trying to generate new interest in the Uniate Church.

The Uniate Church, a branch of which existed in Belarus from 1596 to 1839 and had some three-quarters of the Belarusian population as members when it was abolished, is reputed to have used Belorussian in its liturgy and pastoral work. When the church was reestablished in Belarus in the early 1990s, its adherents advertised it as a "national" church. The modest growth of the Uniate Church was accompanied by heated public debates of both a theological and a political character. Because the original allegiance of the Uniate Church was clearly to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the reestablished church is viewed by some in the Orthodox Church in Belarus with suspicion, as being a vehicle of both Warsaw and the Vatican.

Before World War II, the number of Protestants in Belarus was quite low in comparison with other Christians, but they have shown remarkable growth since then. In 1990 there were more than 350 Protestant communities in the country.

The first Jewish communities appeared in Belorussia at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to increase until the genocide of World War II. Mainly urban residents, the country's nearly 1.3 million Jews in 1914 accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the population in cities and towns. The Soviet census of 1989 counted some 142,000 Jews, or 1.1 percent of the population, many of whom have since emigrated. Although Belorussia's boundaries changed from 1914 to 1922, a significant portion of the decrease was the result of the war. However, with the new religious freedom, Jewish life in Belarus is experiencing a rebirth. In late 1992, there were nearly seventy Jewish organizations active in Belarus, half of which were republic-wide.

Muslims in Belarus are represented by small communities of ethnic Tatars. Some of these Tatars are descendants of emigrants and prisoners of war who settled here after the eleventh century.

Belarus - Culture

Belarusian culture 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 Belorussian). 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 Belorussian 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 Belorussia 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 Belorussia by assimilating the nobility into their respective cultures, the rulers succeeded in associating "Belorussian" 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 Belorussian literature, spreading the idea of nationhood for the Belorussians, 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 Belorussian literature by writing widely on rural themes (the countryside was where the writers heard the Belorussian language) and by modernizing the Belorussian 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.



In Belarus education is compulsory for ten years, from ages seven to seventeen. Primary school, generally starting at age seven and lasting for five years, is followed by an additional five years of secondary school. These schools fall into three categories: general, teacher training, and vocational. Institutions of higher education include three universities, four polytechnical institutes, and a number of colleges specializing in agricultural or technical sciences.

In early 1992, some 60 percent of eligible children attended preschool institutions in Belarus. During the 1993-94 school year, Belarus had 1.5 million children in 5,187 primary and secondary schools, 175,400 students in thirty-three institutions of higher education, and 129,200 students in 148 technical colleges. The literacy rate was 100 percent, and the population was fairly well educated.

During the communist era, education was mainly conducted in the Russian language; by 1987 there were no Belorussian-language schools in any of the republic's urban areas. When Belarusian was adopted as the country's official language in 1990, children were to be taught in Belarusian as early as primary school; Russian language, history, and literature were to be replaced with Belarusian language, history, and literature. However, Russian remains the main language of instruction in both secondary schools and institutions of higher education.

Belarus - Health

Belarus's health care system is in poor shape and fails to meet the needs of the population, as is common for the former republics of the Soviet Union. The communist era's neglect of this sphere, poorly trained staff, and substandard technology have resulted in a system in which basic medical services are sorely lacking, contributing to the poor health of the population. The added strains of caring for victims of the Chornobyl' accident have overwhelmed the system. In 1994 there were 127 hospital beds and forty-two doctors per 10,000 inhabitants. The country had 131,000 hospital beds at 868 hospitals. The most common causes of death were cardiovascular disease, cancer, accidents, and respiratory disease.

The Republic Center on AIDS was created in 1990 to coordinate all activities for prevention of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and control of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). There is mandatory HIV testing of all hospital inpatients and extensive testing of high-risk populations, such as homosexuals, prostitutes, and prisoners. By the end of 1991, seventy cases of HIV-positive individuals were identified, forty of whom were foreigners. However, because HIV testing kits (as well as other medical supplies) had been supplied by Moscow before the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was doubt as to whether testing could continue at the same level.

Belarus - Welfare

Belarus's social safety net, largely a continuation of what existed in the former Soviet Union, is based on a guarantee of employment and a number of allowances and benefits for particular needs. Benefits were indexed to inflation in January 1991 (benefits are adjusted at the same rate as the minimum wage), and the system was expanded in 1991-92, partly to alleviate the social costs of switching to a market economy. The safety net had been a growing concern to the government because in the early 1990s it accounted for a large share of general government expenditures. Benefits were funded either directly by the budget or by two major social funds.

The government's greatest social expenditures are for pensions. The relatively low retirement age (fifty-five for women and sixty for men) and the country's demographic structure account for the large number of pensioners. In January 1992, the minimum pension was raised to 350 rubles (for the value of the Belarusian ruble per month, the same as the minimum wage. The Pension Law of January 1993 based pensions on income earned at the time of retirement and on length of employment; the pensions of those who did not contribute to the Pension Fund during their years of employment are linked to the minimum wage. In January 1994, Belarus had nearly 2 million oldage pensioners and 600,000 persons receiving other types of pensions.

Legislation passed in late 1992 permits families to receive allowances for children above age three only if they meet certain eligibility requirements based on income. Previously, families with children up to sixteen years of age (eighteen years of age for those in secondary schools) had automatically received allowances based on the minimum wage. The program has been hampered by problems in testing for eligibility, however, because of difficulties in assessing income and because of tax evasion by the self-employed.

Unemployment compensation is provided for six months. Benefits are related to earnings for those who work for more than a year and also work continuously for the twelve weeks before separation. For those who work less than a year, benefits are tied to the minimum wage. Because the eligibility criteria for unemployment benefits are quite stringent, half of the registered unemployed are without benefits. In February 1995, some 52 percent of the unemployed received unemployment compensation. In early 1995, women accounted for more than 62 percent of the unemployed.

The government provides a number of other benefits, including lump-sum grants upon the birth of each child; temporary disability allowances; trips to sanatoria, spas, health homes, vacation resorts, and other facilities; and benefits for victims of the Chornobyl' disaster.

Belarus - Housing

In Belarus about 75 percent of urban housing and many village homes were destroyed during World War II, forcing many people to live in makeshift huts and hovels while housing (along with industrial and public buildings) was reconstructed after the war. This chronic housing shortage was recently exacerbated by the need to resettle Chornobyl' victims. In 1993 per capita housing space was approximately nineteen square meters (slightly less in urban areas), small by Western standards. As is true for most of the former Soviet Union, much of Belarus's urban housing stock consists of drab multistory, prefabricated units. The norm for rural housing is individual homes, which tend to be of a higher quality.

In July 1992, the Law on Privatization of Housing was passed, but little progress was made until mid-1993, when amendments were made to the laws to reassess housing values. Plans called for citizens to receive housing vouchers, which could not be exchanged for cash. In 1993 private housing accounted for 49 percent of the housing stock in Belarus.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com