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The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe that borders the Russian Federation to the north and east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north. Its capital is Minsk. One-third of the country is forested, and agriculture and manufacturing are its strongest economic sectors.

Most of Belarus's population of 9.5 million (2009 est) reside in the urban areas surrounding Minsk and other oblast (regional) capitals. Since a referendum in 1995, the country has had two official languages: Belarusian and Russian. Belarus celebrates its National Day on 3 July.

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Belarus gained independence from the former Soviet Union on 25 August 1991. It is a presidential republic. A new constitution was adopted in 1994. It has twice been amended by referendum - first in 1996, giving the President increased powers and establishing a bicameral parliamentary system; and again in 2004 to allow the President to run for more than two terms.

The parliament consists of an upper house, or the Council of the Republic, with 64 members, and a lower chamber, or House of Representatives, with 110 members. The President appoints the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and eight members of the Council (upper house). All members of the House of Representatives are elected by popular vote. The next parliamentary elections are due before October 2012.

The President is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. The current President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was elected in July 1994, and re-elected in September 2001 and again, after changing the Constitution to allow him to run for a third time, in March 2006. The current Prime Minister is Sergei Sidorsky.

President Lukashenko has been the target of increasingly sharp international criticism. Particular areas of concern include control of the bureaucracy, the media and the use of state security apparatus. The Government of Belarus carries a poor human rights record, and Australia has co-sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions expressing deep concern at the continuing violation of human rights in Belarus, including in 2004, 2006 and 2007. At the Eighth Session of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review in May 2010, Australia released a public statement expressing its concern about the human rights situation in Belarus.

The result of the 2004 referendum to change the constitution to enable the President to run for a third consecutive term was disputed by independent observers, including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which assessed that the vote fell significantly short of international standards. The March 2006 Presidential election was similarly condemned by the OSCE, which criticised biased media coverage and harassment of opposition supporters. Protests following the March 2006 Presidential election were reportedly the largest seen in Belarus for over a decade.

Following the flawed 2006 Presidential elections a number of countries including the United States and EU imposed measures on Belarus including travel and financial restrictions and some restrictions on official dealings with the Belarusian government.

Belarusian parliamentary elections were held on 28 September 2008. Candidates loyal to President Lukashenko won all 110 seats. The OSCE concluded in its statement on 30 September 2008 that these elections "fell short of the OSCE's commitments for democratic elections". The French EU Presidency reported that there was a "measure of progress" compared to previous polls. It said that the release of political prisoners was notable among "positive (pre-poll) developments". On 23 January 2009 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced that it would work with the authorities of Belarus on the reform of the countries electoral framework. According to the ODIHR, reforms introduced in January 2010 included a number of significant improvements to Belarus’ electoral legislation but did not remove the underlying concern that the legislative framework falls short of providing a basis for genuinely democratic elections.

President Lukashenko has directed effort into maintaining an amicable relationship with Russia, Belarus' largest economic partner, despite some tensions over Russia's harder line on energy trade, and regional dominance. A framework for the Union of Russia and Belarus was set out in the Treaty on the Formation of a Community of Russia and Belarus (1996), the Treaty on Russia-Belarus Union, the Union Charter (1997), and the Treaty of the Formation of a Union State (1999). In February 2009 Belarus and Russia signed an air defence treaty to establish a joint regional air defence system. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan announced plans to form a customs union in 2010.

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Belarus had been one of the more prosperous parts of the USSR in the Soviet post-war years, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has opposed the privatisation of state enterprises and foreign investors have largely stayed away.

Belarus has seen little structural reform in its economy since 1995 when President Lukashenko embarked on a program of 'market socialism'. Under this program the Presidential administration re-imposed state control over the large Soviet-era industrial enterprises, and over the management of private enterprise. Around three quarters of the economy is under Government control. As a result, small to medium-sized businesses and foreign investors have found it difficult to enter the market.

Over 80 per cent of agricultural land is state-owned and most agricultural land is communally farmed. Collective and state farms are heavily subsidised. Real GDP growth in 2009 was around 0.2 per cent and is forecast at 2.4 per cent for 2010. The global financial crisis affected Belarus primarily through slower economic growth. Belarus asked the IMF for an emergency loan of US$2.46 billion, which was approved. In accordance with IMF conditions Belarus devalued its currency by 20 per cent. Belarus has also received US$1.5 billion credit from Russia. Lukashenko's further requests for loans from Russia were rejected.

Belarus is dependent on Russia to meet its energy needs and it remains an important part of Russia's gas corridor to Western Europe.

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Australia recognised the Republic of Belarus following its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Australia's Ambassador in Moscow is accredited to Minsk. Belarus has no resident representation in Australia.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

The Australia-Belarusian trade relationship is modest. Two-way merchandise trade in 2009 was A$12.44 million, with Australian imports from Belarus valued at A$10.47 million and our exports to Belarus valued at A$1.97 million. The large majority of our trade in 2009 was made up of the Australian importation of A$8.03 million of vehicles from Belarus.

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Last Updated: August 2010

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