Country, eastern Europe. Area: 80,200 sq mi (207,600 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 9,776,000. Capital: Minsk. The population is mainly Belarusian, with Russian and Ukrainian minorities. Languages: Belarusian, Russian (both official). Religion: Christianity (predominantly Eastern Orthodox; also Roman Catholic). Currency: rubel. The northern part of the country is crossed by the Western Dvina (Dzvina) River; the Dnieper (Dnyapro) flows through eastern Belarus; the south has extensive marshy areas along the Pripet (Prypyats') River; the upper course of the Neman (Nyoman) flows in the west; and the Bug (Buh) forms part of the boundary with Poland in the southwest. The chief cities, in addition to Minsk, are Homyel, Mahilyow, and Vitsyebsk. Agriculture, once the linchpin of the Belarusian economy, has diminished in importance, while manufacturing and the service sector have grown. Belarus is a republic with two legislative houses; its president is head of state and government. Although Belarusians share a distinct identity and language, they never previously enjoyed political sovereignty. The territory that is now Belarus underwent partition and changed hands often; as a result, its history is entwined with its neighbours'. In medieval times the region was ruled by Lithuanians and Poles. Following the Third Partition of Poland, Belarus was ruled by Russia. After World War I the western part was assigned to Poland, and the eastern part became Soviet territory. After World War II the Soviets expanded what had been the Belorussian S.S.R. by annexing more of Poland. Much of the area suffered radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, which forced many to evacuate. Belarus declared its independence in 1991 and later joined the Commonwealth of Independent States. Amid increasing political turmoil in the 1990s, it moved toward closer union with Russia but continued to struggle economically and politically at the start of the 21st century.
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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.