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  • William Tyler

Belarus: A Short Background

A long time ago a British Prime Minister said of Czechoslovakia, 'How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gasmasks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing'.


The same could be said today of another European country of which we know little - Belarus.

But in the geopolitics of 'The New Cold War' we cannot ignore a large European country right on the borders of NATO and The EU. This week Belarus has been thrown into the world spotlight by the forcing to land of a passenger airliner and the following arrest of a critic of its regime.


HISTORY

From 1793 until 1991, Belarus was a fully integrated part of The Russian Tsarist Empire then of the Russian Soviet Empire. And, still today, this independent country is highly dependent on Russian support.


Imperial Russia had undertaken a policy of Russification in the latter part of the 19th century, so that today 70% of the population are Russian speaking, with only 23% of the population being Byelorussian speakers.


For a brief period at the end of The First World War, and in the early days of The Russian Revolution, Belarus declared its independence (1918-19). This was short lived as The Red Army re-incorporated the country swiftly back into Russia.


A further brutal period in Belarus' modern history occurred during The Second World War when Germany occupied it from June 1941 until August 1944. The Nazis, as elsewhere, established a puppet Nazi state. Over half a million Belorussian Jews were murdered in The Holocaust by this state. The worst of these atrocities occurred in November 1941 when over eleven thousand Jews from Minsk, the capital city, were taken by lorry into the countryside and shot outside the village of Tuchinka.


The war had a devastating effect on the country (25% of its population lost, including many professionals, as well as nine thousand villages destroyed) from which arguably it is still recovering. Yet in 1991 it finally broke away from Russia and declared its independence, in the wake of the collapse of Communist Eastern Europe.


Sadly, this is not a story with a happy ending for in the first Presidential Election held in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was first elected, and remains the country's President to this day. Lukashenko is himself anti-Semitic, authoritarian, and an apologist for Hitler. His grip on power has been maintained by a brutalist regime. He is often dubbed by the European Press as 'Europe's Last Dictator'. He has been constantly criticised by The EU and The UN.


However, since the Presidential; Election of 2020, widely regarded as rigged, his regime has come under increasing criticism from its own citizens, and the events of earlier this week being but the latest example of Lukashenko taking violent steps to silence opposition.


SOME STATISTICS

Belarus is landlocked, sharing borders with Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and Lithuania. In terms of land mass it is one of Europe's largest countries, but its population is only just over 9 million. Its religion is Russian Orthodox.


The one critical point to note is the presence of the 65km corridor, The Suwalki Corridor, which links Poland with Lithuania. If conflict was to break out between NATO and Russia this Corridor could easily be seized by Russia from Belarussian territory to the east, or from the Russian enclave of Kalingrad from the west. Thus meaning that Russia could launch a two pronged attack on The Baltic States. In the south via the Sudwalki Corridor into Lithuania and in the north at Narva into Estonia.


I doubt whether Belarus will disappear from our news as opposition will inevitably grow and repression worsen. It will all depend on what Putin thinks. Watch this space!

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