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COUNTRY PROFILES


PROFILE

Country Facts

Population: 9.48m (end 2010 EST.)
Capital City: Minsk (population 1.8m)
People: Belarusian (77.9%), Russian (13.2%), Polish (4.1%), Ukrainian (2.9%), other (1.9%)
Languages: Belarusian and Russian are the official national languages.
Religions: Eastern Orthodox Christian (82.5%), Roman Catholic (12%), Protestant (4%), Islam, Bah’I or Krishna (4%). 2010 figures from the Office of the Commissioner on Religions and Nationalities.
Currency: Belarusian roubel (BYR)
Major political parties: “Belaya Rus” is a pro-Presidential NGO. The two main registered opposition parties are the Belarusian National Front (BNF) and United Civic Party (UCP): a third, the Belarusian Christian Democracy, is un-registered (see Human rights section for an explanation).
Form of government: Presidential Republic
Head of State: Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko
Prime Minister/Premier: Mikhail Myasnikovich
Foreign Minister: Sergei Martynov
Membership of international groupings/organisations: Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), EU’s Eastern Partnership, Euro Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Interpol, NATO's Partnership for Peace, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), United Nations (UN), World Bank, World Health Organisation (WHO)

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ECONOMY

Basic Economic Facts

GDP: USD 55.2 billion (2010)
GDP per capita (PPP): USD 13,400 (2010), USD 12,700 (2009), USD 12,600 (2008).
Annual GDP Growth: 7.6% (2010, EIU data).
Inflation (Consumer Price Index): 7.8% (2010, EIU data), 12.9% (2009, EIU data), 14.8 (2008, EIU data).
Major Industries: machine building and metalworking, chemical and petrochemical, food, textiles, woodworking, radio-electronics, and agriculture.
Major trading partners (2010): Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, China.
Exchange rate: 1 GBP = 8063.60 BYR; USD 1 = 4948.36 BYR (June 2011)
During the late Soviet period, Belarus developed a significant industrial base (defence industries, tractors, textiles, etc) and its population enjoyed a standard of living that was high for the USSR together with a high level of education. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus retained this industrial base, but large parts of it have deteriorated through lack of investment and modernisation. Agriculture is also a significant part of the economy.

After initial attempts to liberalise Belarus' post-Soviet economy, reform slowed under Lukashenko and the authorities have continued to display a lack of commitment to implement the structural changes required to move towards a modern, sustainable market economy capable of surviving without large-scale foreign subsidies. The majority of industry (70-80%) remains under the control of the state and is heavily regulated. Foreign investment has been limited due to a non-conducive business and legal environment.

Lukashenko has based his economic strategy on closer relations with Russia on which Belarus remains heavily dependent. According to 2009 figures, Russia was the source of 54.5 % of all imports. Belarus has relied on cheap oil and gas from Russia to balance its budget. However, since 2007 Russia has steadily reduced the level of energy subsidies to Belarus. The price of both oil and gas has increased as Russia has sought to bring prices more into line with European prices. Despite this, it is estimated that the discounts on export duty were still worth $2-3 bn a year in 2011. A deteriorating bilateral relationship in recent years, and Belarusian attempts to amend the energy terms of trade and restore some of the subsidies lost, has resulted in several energy disputes with oil and gas supplies being temporarily cut.

Since the beginning of 2011, the Belarusian economy has been in crisis. Loose fiscal and monetary policies in late 2010 and early 2011 following the end of an IMF programme in March 2010, have deepened existing macroeconomic imbalances. State-directed loans for loss-making state enterprises and wage increases unsupported by profits boosted demand which, along with a lack of flexibility in the exchange rate, widened the current account deficit and depleted reserves. The financing gap for 2011 has been estimated to be $5-6 bn. The result of the crisis has been a 64% devaluation of the BYR and rising inflation – it reached 41% in July 2011. In June 2011 Belarus secured a $3 bn bailout from the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc) anti-crisis fund. On 31 May 2011, Belarus also submitted a request for an IMF loan of between $3-8 bn.

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HISTORY

Recent History

Throughout the 'perestroika' period (1985-91), Belarus was under the control of old-style Communist Party authorities, who were nervous about the nationalist aspirations articulated by intellectuals. The devastation wrought in 1986 by the Chernobyl disaster (70% of the radiation fell on Belarus, contaminating one third of its territory) alienated increasing numbers of Belarusians. In July 1990, the Belarusian Supreme Soviet (Parliament) adopted a wide-ranging Declaration of Sovereignty. Belarus declared independence in August 1991 following the failed coup in Moscow.

In December 1991, Belarus became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In March 1994, the Communist-dominated Supreme Soviet adopted Belarus' first post-Soviet constitution. This switched the country from a parliamentary to a presidential form of government, under which the president is popularly elected.

Longer Historical Perspective

The name Belarus was adopted in 1991 when the country became independent. Previously it had been known by the russified name Belorussia (White Russia). The history of the state goes back to the 9th century principality of Polotsk. During the 13th-14th centuries all Belarusian lands, along with most of Ukraine and part of Russia, were embraced by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The name 'Lithuania', or 'Litva' in Belarusian was, at different times, applied to parts of what is today Belarus and to the Belarusians themselves, as well as to present-day Lithuania. This gave rise to the view, popular among nationally-minded Belarusians, that the Grand Duchy was a form of Belarusian state or a multi-ethnic state in which the Belarusians constituted the core. In the 16th - 18th centuries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania formed a distinct part of the Polish Commonwealth.

The 15th-17th centuries were marked by significant political, economic and cultural achievements. Belarusians take particular pride in Francysk Skaryna's printed Bible (1517) and the uniquely developed legal code of the 16th century, the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (both in old Belarusian).

In the late 18th century, most of the Grand Duchy became part of the Russian Empire. A brief attempt at independence failed in 1918, and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was established in August 1920. In 1922, it was one of four republics that signed the treaty establishing the Soviet Union. The Treaty of Riga (1921), which ended the Russo-Polish War, left today’s Western Belarus under Polish rule until it was retaken by the USSR in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Belarus was occupied and devastated by the Germans in World War II, losing between a quarter and a third of its population. Post-war reconstruction converted Belarus into an industrially, scientifically and militarily advanced Soviet Republic enjoying one of the highest living standards within the USSR.

BBC News Country Timeline: Belarus (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1118391.stm)

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

Relations with Russia

Relations with Russia continue to be the main foreign policy priority. Belarus is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) established when the USSR broke up in 1991. In January 1995, Russia and Belarus established a Customs Union (later joined by Kazakhstan). At the same time, the two states signed an agreement on military cooperation which allowed Russia to lease several military facilities in Belarus for 25 years. In April 1996, Russia and Belarus signed a treaty establishing the 'Community of Sovereign Republics' which aimed to deepen economic integration. In December 1999, a treaty on the formation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was signed in Moscow.

However, the bilateral relationship has gradually soured since Putin took office as Russia pursued an increasingly assertive line toward all the CIS countries, even toward traditionally close allies such as Belarus. Russia has been disappointed with Belarus’ failure, as Russia sees it, to follow up its promise of “real” integration with Russia.

The concept of the Union State has failed to develop, but there continues to be movement on the Customs Union and the creation of a common economic space. The provisional agreement for a customs union was finally made in January 2010 and came into force in July 2010. It is designed to create a trading block of 170 mn people and to relax the rules regulating the movement of goods, labour, and services for companies operating between these countries. From January 1 2012, the three states are expected to introduce a single economic space.

Relations with the International Community

In February 1993, Belarus acceded to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). In 1996, it fulfilled its undertaking to become a nuclear-free state. Tactical nuclear warheads were withdrawn from the country in May 1992 and the last strategic missiles left Belarus for Russia in November 1996. Belarus complies with the CFE Treaty. In January 1995, Belarus signed NATO's Partnership for Peace Agreement. However, Lukashenko is a critic of NATO enlargement.

Relations with large parts of the international community have soured since the flawed Presidential election in December 2010 and the brutal dispersal of people peacefully protesting against the flawed results.

European Union

Following the on-going human rights violations since 19 December 2010, Member States agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January 2011 to re-impose the 2006 sanctions of travel bans and asset freezes that had been imposed following the flawed 2006 Presidential election. The travel ban list was also extended to those involved in the 2010 crackdown. In June 2011, further sanctions were introduced with: an arms embargo and export ban on materials that might be used for internal repression; an asset freeze on three companies linked to the regime; and the addition of more names to the travel ban list.

Relations with the UK

Diplomatic relations were established in 1991, and a small mission opened in Minsk in May 1993. The British Embassy in Minsk was opened in July 1995 by the then Minister for Europe, Sir Nicholas Bonsor. The present Head of Mission, Rosemary Thomas, arrived in Belarus in September 2009. The Embassy now has four UK-based members of staff. The Defence Attaché resident in Moscow covers defence relations.

Belarus established a Consulate in London in June 1993 and upgraded to an Embassy in May 1994. It moved to new premises in December 1995. The current Belarusian Ambassador, Mr Alexander Mikhnevich, arrived in November 2006.

Under EU policy, Ministerial contact was limited until 2008 when Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky visited the UK in November 2008 and met the then Minister for Europe, Caroline Flint. Following the 2010 Presidential election, Ministerial contact has once again been limited and the UK has condemned the post-election crackdown by the authorities.

Cultural Relations with the UK

The British Council in Minsk closed in November 2000 following a global strategic review by the Council designed to maximise effectiveness worldwide, and due to pressure from the local authorities. However, the Council continues to provide limited support from its office in Kyiv in respect of the Government's Chevening scholarship scheme and other initiatives like the Cultural Leadership International Programme.

Chevening Scholarships website (http://www.chevening.com/)

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GEOGRAPHY

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe and borders Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The terrain is mostly low-lying with forests and flat marshes. The climate is continental: cold winters, warm and humid summers.

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TRADE AND INVESTMENT

Trade and Investment with the UK

UK exports to Belarus only totalled £7m in 2005. These consisted mainly of chemicals, textiles and machinery. Import figures from Belarus for 2005 totalled £276m and consisted largely of oil and oil products. UK exports have since increased with £86 million in 2008 and £73 million in 2009. Imports have fluctuated from £98 million in 2008 but following a reduction of imports of petroleum based products the figure was £30 million in 2009.

An Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, signed in March 1994, came into force in December 1994. A Soviet-era double taxation agreement remains in force.

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POLITICS

Presidential elections were held in July 1994. The populist, non-party affiliate, Alexander Lukashenko (a former collective farm manager) won 80% of the votes in the second round. Pitching his message to a politically inexperienced electorate disillusioned with the early experience of economic reform and concerned about declining living standards, Lukashenko called for a crackdown on crime and corruption, renewed economic relations with Russia and a halt to privatisation, including that of land.

Parliamentary elections were held in May 1995 for a unicameral parliament, the 260-member Supreme Soviet. Low turnout (with President Lukashenko himself subtly discouraging his countrymen from voting) and the complexity of the voting system left the legislature well short of the quorum of 174 members required by the constitution. The Soviet-era parliament elected in 1990, the Supreme Soviet (12th convocation), filled the vacuum until an electoral round was held in December 1995 which brought the total of members to 198 and finally achieved a quorum.

Relations between President Lukashenko and the Supreme Soviet were tense. Parliament resisted the President's efforts to strengthen his powers. It was supported by the Constitutional Court, which overruled a number of presidential decrees. Lukashenko's response was to re-write the constitution, dissolve parliament and put his own appointees in the Constitutional Court.

In a referendum held in November 1996, President Lukashenko won an overwhelming endorsement for a radically rewritten constitution. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared the conduct of the referendum to have been neither free nor fair. Despite a ruling by the Constitutional Court that the referendum was unconstitutional, Lukashenko declared the results to be binding.

Since 1996 Lukashenko has effectively ruled by decree. The new constitution gave the President extensive powers relative to those of the judiciary – the Constitutional Court was dissolved and replaced by a new one with no right to examine Presidential decrees. The existing parliament was replaced with a bicameral National Assembly with much weaker powers. The National Assembly consisted of a 110-seat Chamber of Representatives (lower house) and a 64-seat Council of the Republic (upper house). The 110 members of the lower house were appointed by Lukashenko. The 64-member upper house was created by a combination of presidential appointments and the results of the January 1997 elections by Belarus' six regional councils and Minsk city council.


Elections

In October 2000, parliamentary elections took place for the first time since the controversial referendum of 1996. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that these elections failed to meet international standards for free, fair and transparent elections.

The majority of opposition parties announced that they were boycotting the parliamentary elections. These included the Belarusian Popular Front, the United Civic Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Women's Party 'Nadzeya'.

Presidential elections took place in September 2001. Lukashenko declared victory against his two challengers, Sergei Gaydukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Vladimir Goncharyk, the united opposition candidate. The Belarusian Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenko won 75% of the vote with Goncharyk securing 15%. However, the ODIHR report concluded that the presidential election process failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections. The report highlighted serious flaws including: unequal access to the media for opposition candidates; biased media reporting in favour of Lukashenko; and a delay in inviting the OSCE Observation Mission.

Lukashenko was due to leave office in 2006. However, in another referendum, which was held in parallel to the parliamentary elections of 17 October 2004, Lukashenko secured overwhelming support to amend the Constitution, removing the two-term Presidential limit. The concurrent elections were judged not to meet international standards. Of the 110 seats contested, all were won by pro-government candidates. ODIHR, which deployed a full Election Observation Mission, concluded in its initial findings that the elections 'fell significantly short of OSCE standards for democratic elections'. It went on to say that universal principles and constitutionally guaranteed rights of expression, association and assembly were seriously challenged, and the dominant influence of the State administration was apparent throughout the organisation of the election processes.

The EU subsequently condemned the conduct of the election and questioned whether the results of both the election and referendum fully reflected the will of the Belarusian electorate. At the same time, the EU stressed that it was still willing to deepen its relationship with Belarus, but only once the Belarusian authorities clearly demonstrate their willingness to respect democratic values and the rule of law.

In the subsequent March 2006 Presidential election Lukashenko was declared the winner with 83% of the vote. The OSCE's election observation mission called the elections "severely flawed due to the arbitrary use of state power and restrictions on basic rights". The opposition held a number of post-election demonstrations. Security forces used violence to break up the demonstrations. The Presidential candidate, Kozulin, was arrested, along with other opposition leaders and sentenced to five and half years.

On 10 April 2006, the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) Conclusions announced the imposition of a travel ban on 31 individuals, including Lukashenko, responsible for electoral fraud and the subsequent crackdown on civil society. On 18 May, EU Foreign Ministers agreed to impose further restrictive measures in the form of asset freezes on the same 31 individuals. Four further individuals involved in the prosecution of Kozulin and other opposition activists were added to both lists on 23 October 2006.

Parliamentary elections were held on 28 September 2008. The official results showed that oppositional parties failed to gain any of the 110 available seats, all of which were given to parties and non-partisan candidates loyal to President Lukashenko. ODIHR stated that the conduct of the elections fell short of the OSCE’s democratic commitments and international standards.

Local elections in April 2010, monitored by local diplomatic missions again highlighted serious flaws. On 19 December 2010, Belarusians returned to the polls for a Presidential election. According to official figures, President Lukashenko won the elections with approximately 79.6% of the votes. The OSCE/ODIHR Observation Mission’s final report concluded that Belarus had a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. The report highlighted: a lack of independence and impartiality of the election administration; an uneven playing field and a restrictive media environment; and a continuous lack of transparency at key stages of the electoral process.

The December 2010 Presidential election was accompanied by a violent crackdown on dissent by the authorities

Human Rights

Belarus's human rights record since President Lukashenko came to power in 1994 has been particularly poor. The UN Human Rights Council and other international organisations, including the EU and OSCE, have consistently expressed concern about continuous human rights violations.


Aftermath of 19 December 2010 Presidential Elections

Since December 2010, this pattern of human rights violations has intensified. On the evening of the 19 December 2010 Presidential election, peaceful opposition protests were brutally dispersed by the Belarusian authorities.

As a result of the protest, more than 700 people were arrested, including six of the Presidential candidates. Around 600 were imprisoned for 15 days as an administrative punishment. A total of 50 people were charged with “mass riot”, “mass disorder” or “hooliganism” in connection with the election night protests.
During their detention before trial, most detainees were kept in virtual isolation having seen their lawyers only two or three times. Their relatives were not allowed to visit and almost all correspondence was confiscated. There have also been serious allegations of physical and psychological torture. Their lawyers were made to promise not to reveal any details about their clients, even to relatives. Four lawyers defending detainees were disbarred on the instruction of the Ministry of Justice.

To date, 43 have been tried with all defendants found guilty - 32 have been handed custodial sentences ranging from two to six years. This includes five of the Presidential candidates: Mikolay Statkevich and Dimitry Uss received six and five and half years respectively; Andrei Sannikov was sentenced to five years; Vladzmir Nekyayev and Vytaly Rymasheuski were given two years suspended sentences. The sixth Candidate, Ales Mikhalevich, evaded trial by going into exile. There are serious concerns about the way the trials were conducted. The UK along with EU partners and others consider these cases to be politically motivated.


The “disappeared”

In 1999/2000 four opponents of the regime disappeared, including former Belarusian Interior Minister, Yury Zakharenko, and Viktor Gonchar, a deputy of Belarus' 13th Supreme Soviet. Despite appeals from the international community, no satisfactory investigation has been conducted by the Belarusian authorities. Despite repeated calls by the EU to open a truly independent investigation, the authorities failed to act. In response, in September 2004 the EU decided to apply travel restrictions against those Belarusian officials named in the Pourgourides report on 'Disappeared Persons in Belarus' as key actors in the disappearances (this report was adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April 2004). From 2005, activists have maintained public awareness of the disappearances by demonstrating on the 16th day of every month. However, harassment from the authorities grew so intense at these demonstrations that they ceased in autumn 2010.


Rights of assembly

NGOs, political parties and trades unions face constant harassment. To operate they are required to register. Registration is frequently rejected for minor irregularities in applications, including spelling mistakes and for supposed criminal convictions of founding members - even when those convictions relate to their activity on behalf of the organisation they are attempting to register. No new political party has been registered since 2000. If organisations are successful in registering themselves legislation is in place which allows the authorities to revoke their registration at will.

There is also continued harassment by the authorities of those who exercise their right to peaceful assembly. There have been cases registered where those detained for taking part in demonstrations have been subjected to beatings and other degrading forms of treatment by the police.

In June 2011 weekly Wednesday “silent protests” began, organised through the internet by a group calling themselves, “revolution through social network”. People congregated in central Minsk, and in other cities, in silent protest against the regime. The response by the authorities has been increased repression and intimidation. It is estimated that between 8 June and 6 July 2011 there were 1730 arrests. The evidence is that many of these arrests were arbitrary. In July 2011 the authorities initiated legislative amendments to effectively criminalise these “silent protests”. It expands the definition of picketing to include “inaction in a public place”. Unsanctioned pickets would be subject to penalties.


Freedom of Expression

The Belarusian state controls all media outlets, meaning that only officially approved views are heard by most of society. At least eight new non-state newspapers were refused registration in 2010. Ten independent publications still have no possibility of being distributed through the state press distribution system.
Independent journalists are frequently harassed. Following the presidential election of 19 December 2010, the independent media was specifically targeted, with premises raided, equipment seized, journalists interrogated and in some cases beaten up. Foreign media outlets have faced problems getting their correspondents accredited.

Articles in the Civil Code that envisage criminal responsibility for defamation and insult of the president, state officials, judges, and discredit of the Republic of Belarus remain in place. Media organisations can be shut down by court order after a single "gross" violation of the law or after two warnings (issued by the Ministry of Information) for two violations, insignificant as they may be. A number of independent media organisations are currently the subject of such warnings.


Death Penalty

Belarus is the only nation in Europe that retains the death penalty for certain crimes during times of peace and war. Two prisoners were executed in Minsk in March 2010 and two more in July 2011. These executions were carried out despite a formal request by the UN Human Rights Committee for postponing the executions until it considered the convicts' complaints. The standard practice in Belarus is that the condemned are informed that their appeal for clemency has been denied, then are immediately taken to a neighbouring cell and shot in the back of the head. Their families are not notified in advance, and do not have a right to know where their relatives are buried. Families are officially informed of the executions some days or weeks after the event.
The UK with EU Member States is working with local and international NGOs to promote public debate, and publicise EU views on the death penalty. The EU has urged Belarus to abolish the death penalty or, as an initial measure, to introduce a moratorium. The UK supports the decision of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to offer Belarus honorary membership of the Council only after a moratorium has been declared.

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Last Updated: August 2011

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