Belarus, with an area of over 80,000 square miles, is located in east central Europe, between Latvia, Lithuania and Poland on’the West and Northwest, with Russia on the East and Northeast, and Ukraine to the South. Of the approximately 10.3 million population, 78 percent are Belarusian, 13 percent Russian, 4 percent Polish, and 3 percent Ukrainian. A small Lithuanian population is concentrated near the Lithuanian border. Part of the Russian Empire since the second and third partitions of Poland in the latter half of the 18th century, Belarus enjoyed brief independence following the Bolshevik revolution. In November 1918, the Red Army entered Minsk and established the Belarussian SSR. During the Cold War era, Belarus was a quiescent, almost completely Russified Soviet republic.
Popular discontent was stirred up in 1986 by the radioactive winds of the Chemobyl nuclear reactor disaster in neighboring Ukraine. and Moscow’s incompetence in dealing with the· crisis. A year later, exposure of the mass graves of Stalin’s victims at Kuropaty added to anti-Moscow .feelings. Unexpected and uncharacteristic mass strikes and public protests met President Gorbachev’s April 1991. prices increases — only a month after the March 1991 “Referendum on the Union,” in which 83 percent of Belarusian voters favored preservation of the USSR.