The region now constituting Belarus was colonized by East Slavic tribes from the 5th to the 8th cent. It fell (9th cent.) under the sway of Kievan Rus and was later (12th cent.) subdivided into several Belarusian principalities forming part of the Kievan state. Kiev's destruction by the Mongols in the 13th cent. facilitated the conquest (early 14th cent.) of Belarus by the dukes of Lithuania. The region became part of the grand duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 was merged with Poland. The large Jewish population (later decimated by the Germans during World War II) settled in Belarus in the 14th cent. The region flourished under Lithuanian rule; but after the Polish-Lithuanian union Belarus lost its relative importance, and its ruling classes became thoroughly Polonized.
Through the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, all Belarus passed to the Russian Empire. It suffered greatly during the wars (16th–18th cent.) between Poland and Russia and in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812 (during which it was laid waste by retreating Russian forces). Great poverty under Russian rule, notably among the Jews, led to mass emigration to the United States in the 19th cent. A battlefield in World War I and in the Soviet-Polish War of 1919–20, Belarus experienced great devastation.
In Mar., 1918, the Belarusian National Rada in Minsk proclaimed the region an independent republic; but in Jan., 1919, the Soviet government proclaimed a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic at Smolensk, and soon the Red Army occupied all of Belarus. In 1921, the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Soviet-Polish War, awarded W Belarus to Poland. The eastern and larger part formed the Belorussian SSR when the USSR was formally established in 1922.
In Sept., 1939, the Soviet army overran E Poland and incorporated W Belarus into the Belorussian SSR. Occupied (1941–44) by the Germans during World War II, Belorussia was one of the most devastated areas of the USSR. Its large Jewish population (dating from the 14th cent.) was decimated, and many non-Jews were systematically murdered as well. As much as half the region's population died or was displaced during the war. In 1945 its western border was adjusted slightly in favor of Poland, but the 1939 frontier remained essentially unchanged. The country has had a separate seat in the United Nations since 1945.
The massive nuclear accident (Apr. 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 huge and long-term.
The Republic of Belarus declared its independence from the USSR on Aug. 25, 1991. The reform-minded Stanislav Shushkevich became head of state and, along with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus was one of the original signatories to the treaty establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States. In early 1994 former Communists in the parliament voted to replace Shushkevich with Mechislav Grib, a former national police official; Aleksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post in July, 1994. Parliamentary elections were held during 1995, and most seats were filled by former Communists.
In 1996, Russia and Belarus signed an agreement to form a "union state" that, without completely merging the two governments, would strengthen economic, cultural, and political ties. Additional treaties signed in 1997, 1998, and 1999 included the development of common customs and taxation, a single currency, a joint defense policy, and other items designed to integrate the two nations, but progress toward real integration has been slow, as Russia as insisted on gradual implementation of the union and Belarus has proved reluctant to cede any real power to its much larger neighbor. In Sept., 2003, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine signed an agreement to create a common economic space, but the customs union establishment was delayed until July, 2010, and Ukraine was not a party to the 2009 accord that established the customs union.
A referendum held in 1996 increased Lukashenko's power at the expense of parliament and extended his presidential term by two years (to 2001). A new parliament subsequently was formed from handpicked members of the old. Lukashenko's government has been criticized for human-rights abuses, including being responsible for the disappearance of its political opponents. Parliamentary elections held in 2000, which were boycotted by the small democratic opposition, preserved Lukashenko's hold on power. Lukashenko himself was reelected in 2001, in a contest that most observers regarded as neither free nor fair.
A referendum in 2004 removed the two-term limit on the presidency, but independent observers and polls indicated that the results were fraudulent. Elections for parliament, in which no opposition candidate won a seat, were held at the same time and were similarly flawed. Following the so-called Orange Revolution (Oct.–Dec., 2004) in Ukraine, where demonstrations ultimately forced the governing party from power, the Belarusian government increased its efforts to silence its opponents. In 2005 relations became particularly tense with Poland, which Lukashenko accused of plotting with Belarus's Polish minority to overthrow him.
Lukashenko was reelected by a lopsided margin in Mar., 2006. The tightly controlled campaign and subsequent voting were criticized by the European Union, the United States, and others but commended by the Commonwealth of Independent States. Following the campaign, opponents mounted a number of protests against the president that, though not large, nonetheless were more sustained than previous demonstrations. Many opposition leaders were arrested and jailed, including the 2006 opposition presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin.
Relations with Russia became strained late in 2006 when the Russia-owned energy giant Gazprom insisted Belarus pay more (though still less than market rates) for natural gas; Russia also insisted that Belarus pay the full duty on Russian crude oil (which Belarus processed and exported). Belarus responded to these price increases by imposing a transit tax on Russian oil exported through pipelines in Belarus, but Russia refused to pay. Russia subsequently halted the transport of oil through Belarus, accusing it of siphoning off oil as payment for the transit tax, and after threats of retaliation from Russia, Belarus agreed to revoke the tax.
In Aug., 2007, Gazprom threatened to reduce gas supplies to Belarus because of overdue payments, and in subsequent years there were signs of strain in relations with Russia, most notably after Belarus did not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent after Russia did (2008). In the parliamentary elections of Sept., 2008, which were denounced as rigged by the opposition and criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, no opposition candidate won a seat.
Relations between Belarus and Russia were again strained in Jan., 2010, this time over the amount of oil Russia would sell to Belarus at a discount. Russia refused to sell Belarus more discounted oil than it required to meet its own needs; Belarus had been earning export income by refining additional discounted oil and selling it on the international market. Russia did agree to an increase in transit fees paid for oil piped through Belarus to other countries, but the changes aggravated Belarus's economic problems. A dispute over payments due Gazprom led to a brief reduction in Russian gas shipments to Belarus in June, 2010, and relations with Russia remained periodically testy.
The Dec., 2010, presidential election was a repeat of the previous won in most respects, with Lukashenko winning some 80% of the vote amid charges of fraud. Protest demonstrations in the capital after the results were announced were broken up with force by riot police, and a number of opposition candidates, activists, and journalists were arrested then and in subsequent weeks. The election and the government moves against the opposition were denounced by European (OSCE) observers. In Apr., 2011, a subway bombing in Minsk killed 15 and injured some 200. Two men were later convicted (Nov., 2011) of the attack, but at the time many inside and outside Belarus speculated that government might be behind the attack in an attempt to distract citizens from the country's increasing economic problems. Belarus sold Gazprom its share of the gas pipeline company Beltranshaz in Nov., 2011, in exchange for temporarily reduced natural-gas prices and a $10 billion loan.
The parliamentary elections of Sept., 2012, were boycotted by the two main opposition parties, and supporters of Lukashenko swept all the seats. Western observers again criticized the elections as undemocratic; domestic critics also accused the government of vote fraud and inflating the turnout, with was reported as being nearly 75%.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.