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Belarus country profile

23 December 11 11:36 GMT

It has been ruled with an increasingly iron fist since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests.

In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the US as Europe's only remaining "outpost of tyranny". In late 2008, there were some signs of a slight easing of tensions with the West, though this proved to be only a temporary thaw.

The country became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Two decades later, the sense of national identity is weak, international isolation continues and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue.

In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away.

The economic situation deteriorated drastically in the summer of 2011 when a balance of payments crisis drained the country's hard-currency reserves. The government's efforts to re-peg the official exchange rate and freeze the price of staple foodstuffs failed to impress either Russia or the International Monetary Fund, to both of which Belarus appealed for assistance.

For much of his career, Mr Lukashenko has sought to develop closer ties with Russia. On the political front, there was talk of union but little tangible evidence of progress, and certainly not toward the union of equals envisaged by President Lukashenko.

Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia to meet its own energy needs and a considerable proportion of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe pass through it.

Russia's role as a major energy supplier to the rest of Europe and Belarus's position as a key transit country have come under the spotlight several times since 2006, when tensions first arose between Moscow and Minsk over the price of Russian gas and Belarus's privileged access to duty-free oil.

Relations with Russia deteriorated sharply in the summer of 2010, with disputes over energy pricing, customs union terms and the presence in Belarus of ousted Kyrgyz president Bakiyev, prompting speculation that Moscow might switch support from Lukashenko to another leadership candidate.

President: Alexander Lukashenko

Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, was inaugurated for a fourth term as president in January 2011.

The announcement of the presidential election result in December 2010 was followed by violent confrontations in the capital Minsk between the security forces and thousands of opposition demonstrators protesting about alleged vote-rigging.

The European security organisation, the OSCE, described the election as seriously flawed, and OSCE observers criticised both the counting of votes and the violent backlash against opposition candidates. The Belarus government responded by shutting down the OSCE's Minsk office. Russia said the election was an internal matter for Belarus.

A former state farm director, Mr Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994, following his energetic performance as chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee.

A 1996 referendum gave the president greatly increased powers at the expense of parliament and extended his term by two years. He won a further five years in office in 2001 presidential elections condemned as undemocratic by Western observers. Another referendum in October 2004 supported lifting the two-term limit on Mr Lukashenko's rule, allowing him to stand again in 2006 and 2010.

Over the years, several opposition politicians who might have provided leadership have disappeared or been imprisoned. Insulting the president, even in jest, carries a prison sentence.

The president remains defiant in the face of Western pressure for change. He has dismissed all possibility of revolutions such as those which brought an end to old-style regimes in Georgia and neighbouring Ukraine.

The government maintained its stranglehold on politics in the 2008 parliamentary elections, winning all seats.

The release in late 2008 of several opposition activists prompted a slight loosening of EU and US sanctions, and tentative talk of a thaw in relations with the West. However, this process was thrown into reverse after the 2010 presidential elections.

Mr Lukashenko is keen on sport with a particular interest in ice hockey. He was born in 1954.

Belarus has been heavily criticised by rights bodies for suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Belarus 151st out of 175 countries in its 2009 press freedom index.

A 2008 media law raised concerns. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it was "severely restrictive", citing curbs on foreign funding for media, accreditation rules for journalists, and efforts to censor the web.

TV is the main source of news. The four national channels are state-controlled; their main competitors are Russian networks.

Official newspapers are subsidised, while opposition print media have faced increased charges and have been forced to change name, close down, or publish abroad.

Some private publications survive. They include business daily BDG Delovaya Gazeta and the embattled opposition paper Narodnaya Volya.

Foreign media outlets target Belarus. They include the Polish-funded, Belarussian-language satellite TV station Belsat.

The web is used by the opposition to make its voice heard. There were around 4.4 million internet users by June 2010 (InternetWorldStats).

RSF says a "burgeoning internet has only recently come to the attention of the censoring authorities". Under a 2010 presidential edict, ISPs must identify the devices used by web users and keep records of services rendered.

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