Like the Russian Federation, Belarus has experienced a decline in its overall population during the last two decades, but unlike its eastern neighbor, the percentage of the titular nationality has risen because of sharp declines in the numbers of ethnic Russians and of most other minorities registered there.
This announcement is important for three reasons. First, it comes on a day when Russian media are reporting that the overall population of that country has declined and that the share of non-Russian groups there is rising, especially Muslim groups in the North Caucasus and migrants from Central Asia.
Second, it calls into question the widespread assumption in both the Russian Federation and the West that Belarusian national identity is a very real thing. Were those views true, the numbers Mensk is reporting this week would likely be very different, with the share of ethnic Russians remaining higher than it has.
And third, the sharp decline in the number of ethnic Russians reduces the utility of this group for Moscow as a lever it can use against Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
With the ethnic Russians forming an ever smaller share of the Belarusian population, those promoting the idea that these two nations are really one face an increasingly uphill task.
These three factors making the timing of this announcement thus a very political one, all the more so since the Belarusian census agency noted that in the conduct of its enumeration, the nationality of residents was recorded on the basis of their declarations, something many in Russia have good reason to doubt has been true in their own country.
On November 2, the Belarusian National Statistical Committee said that the October 2009 census had found that the number of ethnic Russians there had declined from 11.3 percent to 8.3 percent of the total, an absolute decline of some 356,000 people, some of whom left, others died, and others re-identified.
The next largest ethnic minorities in Belarus are now the Poles with three percent of the population, the Ukrainians with 1.7 percent, followed by smaller groups of Armenians,Tatars, Azerbaijanis and Lithuanians. As a result, the Belarusians now constitute 83.7 percent of the country's population, 2.5 percent more than a decade ago.
Most of the other traditional indigenous nationalities, the statistical agency said, have experienced a decline as well, with the number of Jews falling by more than half, the number of Ukrainian s by a third, and the number of Roma by 29 percent. As a result, the percent of residents of Belarusians declaring themselves to be Belarusians has risen.
But the number of non-traditional nationalities resident there had increased dramatically, at least in part because their numbers then and now are still extremely small. Compared to 1999, the number of Chinese living in Belarus had increased by "more than 20 times, the number of Arabs by 2.7 percent, and the number of Turkmens by 2.3 times.
Belarus as a whole is thus becoming more ethnically homogeneous, a sorting out of nationalities that is typical of former Soviet republics except for the Russian Federation, which is moving in the other direction, but the nationality mix varies considerably across the country. In Brest and Mensk oblasts, for example, Armenians form one of the larger minorities.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at email@example.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/