As an inland country, surrounded by various other former Soviet states (Russian Federation, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia), as well as Poland, Belarus extends over 207,600 km ² and in 1998, according to an estimate by the United Nations, it counted little more than 10 million residents. Almost four fifths of the population is made up of White Russians (the name, Belarus’, means White Russia), who speak a language belonging to the Eastern Slavic lineage and very close to Russian, and for the rest by a minority of Russians (13 % approximately), Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Both Belarusian and Russian are official languages (reintroduced following a referendum held in 1995); the most widespread religion is Orthodox Christian, followed at a distance by Catholic and Jewish.
Both for the events of the past (the numerous victims during the Second World War, the expulsion of many Poles after that war and the enlargement of the country to the detriment of Poland), and for the current demographic behavior (birth rate below 11 ‰ and mortality above 12), the Belarusian population is numerically stationary or slightly decreasing, as well as structurally ‘aged’.
According to 800zipcodes, the capital, Minsk (Mensk in Belarusian; 1.7 million residents in 1997), destroyed by the war and rebuilt in the typical ‘socialist’ style, surrounded by suburban gardens, dominates the urban network; about 350,000 ÷ 500. 000 residents each are the cities of Vitebsk (Vicebsk), Mogilëv (Magilëŭ), Gomel´, aligned from N to S not far from the Russian border.
The Belarusian economy, in the past among the most advanced in the USSR, is evolving very slowly. The interruption of privileged relations with the other Soviet republics has seriously damaged it: the crisis of transition, with all its collateral economic manifestations, is not yet resolved, privatizations are rather limited (a prudent program in this sense has been launched only in 1994); the resumption of integration with Russia (a supplier of cheap energy and a traditional outlet for Belarusian exports) is seen as a solution, but puts a stop to possible Western investments (strongly desired, at least initially) in the industrial sector, fairly diversified and relatively modern, at least in comparison with most of the industries of the former Soviet countries (the main productions are in the metallurgical and mechanical, food and chemical sectors).
Agriculture, for a long time hindered by the marshes, is now quite flourishing and employs just over a fifth of the active population. Private management is still a minority and subject to restrictions. Sugar beets are grown on the best lands, rye, wheat, potatoes, flax and hemp elsewhere. The fodder also occupies considerable expanses of land, feeding a rich herd of cattle. Forests cover a third of the territory and represent an important economic resource.
As mineral resources, apart from modest oil pockets and limited deposits of potassium salts, both in the south of the country, Belarus can count on the diffusion of peat, typical of areas that were or remain marshy; this fuel is looked at carefully, in the hope that it will one day lead to energy self-sufficiency. No nuclear power plants have been built in Belarus, not even at the time of their widespread diffusion in Europe: which has not prevented the southern regions of the country from being heavily affected, since 1986.(in terms of health as well as agricultural production), the disaster of the Chernobyl´ (C̆ornobyl´) power plant, in Ukraine but very close to the Belarusian border. For the time being, oil and gas are being imported from Russia via the ‘friendship’ pipeline and other pipelines that cross the country from E to West, along which chemical (fertilizer, synthetic fibers) and mechanical industries are located to a considerable extent. (agricultural machinery, means of transport, machine tools); other pipelines, in particular a modern gas pipeline, are being planned. The Moscow-Warsaw-Berlin railway axis also crosses the country from E to West, strengthening its function as a transit area between Russia and Central Europe.