Belarus - Overview of economy

The breakup of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 had a negative impact on Belarus. Although the majority of the former Soviet republics quickly shifted their economies toward the free market system, Belarus was among the slowest to open up its economy. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) assisted the country with credits and special economic development projects. Although their efforts resulted in some positive outcomes, they also increased Belarus's international debt. Whereas in 1991 the country was practically debt-free, in 2000 Belarus owed nearly US$800 million to foreign banks and government bodies.

Agriculture and industry are the largest sectors of Belarus's economy, making up 13 percent and 34 percent of GDP in 2000, respectively. Wheat, rye, oats, potatoes, flax, hemp, and sugar beets are the primary agricultural products. Dairy and beef cows, pigs, and chickens are also raised. The main industrial items produced in Belarus are tractors, trucks, earth movers, metal-cutting machine tools, agricultural equipment, motorcycles, chemicals, fertilizer, textiles, and some consumer goods . Peat, the country's most valuable mineral resource, is used for fuel and fertilizer and in the chemical industry. Belarus also has significant deposits of clay, sand, chalk, dolomite, phosphor, and rock and potassium salt. Forests cover one-third of the country's territory and the lumber industry is economically important as a result. Having only small reserves of petroleum and natural gas of its own, Belarus imports most of its oil and gas, mainly from neighboring Russia. It also imports large quantities of grain. The main export items are machinery and household items.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident that took place on 26 April 1986 in Ukraine released massive amounts of radiation, contaminating large amounts of agricultural land in Belarus. An estimated 150,000 inhabitants had to move, and many people needed medical help. Chernobyl caused the government to take more than 23 percent of the country's agricultural land and 20 percent of forest land out of production. Economic output declined for several years after the accident, but revived somewhat in the late 1990s. The economic revival was due to several factors, including improved production techniques, better relations with foreign countries, and the introduction of privatization .

Under the socialist system of the Soviet Union, Belarus's economy was merely part of the national economy of the Soviet Union. After winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus moved very slowly on free market reforms, keeping its basic economic reliance on Russia. Some reforms were implemented between 1991 and 1994, but they did not last long enough to make an impression. When Alexander Grigorjevich Lukashenka became president in 1994, many of these free market economic reforms were reversed. The government reintroduced price controls (an enforced price on an item) on at least 26 basic goods and services. Currency exchange regulations were re-imposed, and privatization was halted. The government subsidized businesses and farms. About half of all enterprises remained in state hands in 2000. Structural reform has been slower than in most other Commonwealth of Independent States (the CIS is made up of 12 republics of the former Soviet Union, not including the 3 Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia).

Russia remains Belarus's main trading partner, accounting for more than 50 percent of Belarus's foreign trade. Belarus has made several attempts at economic and political re-integration with Russia. Belarus seeks to use the Russian ruble as its currency by 2005, and hopes to see a common Russia-Belarus currency by 2008. Other major trading partners are Ukraine, Poland, and Germany.

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