Carved out of Russia’s east border, Belarus sits among a group of post-Soviet states in East Europe to the north of Ukraine. The nation claimed its independence in 1991 after seven decades under the USSR. Though landlocked, more than 11,000 lakes and ancient, enchanting woodlands cover the flat landscape.
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Despite operating under an autonomous government, Belarus maintains extremely close political and economic ties with Russia. The two countries agreed to create a two-state union in 1999, but the treaty has not yet been seriously implemented. Isolationist trade policies are fueled by priority access to cheap oil from Russia, a relationship that has been called into question more than once in the last decade.
The Eurasian Economic Union – a treaty to establish free movement of goods and services between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan – came into effect in 2015, though other foreign relations are much cooler. Strict Schengen border rules block illegal immigration and trade across the shared border with Poland, and the United States holds sanctions against a number of Belarusian officials for human rights violations.
Belarus translates to “white Russia,” representative of the heavy, ongoing influence the Kremlin has over its former constituent. This borrowed identity, in a sense, has also limited the development of a national culture. Russian replaced Belarusian as the official language in 1995, and in capital city Minsk, the headquarters of the KGB – the Russian secret police and intelligence agency – are an imposing reminder of the nation’s history.
Since his election in 1994, President Aleksander Lukashenko has driven increasingly restrictive policies that have elicited the label of “Europe’s last dictatorship” and drawn condemnation abroad. Protests challenged Lukashenko’s election in 2010, but were limited in 2015. Once one of the more prosperous post-Soviet states, Belarus now has among the lowest gross domestic product growth rates in the world. The great majority of industry, including communal farms, is state-run and heavily subsidized.
About three-quarters of Belarusians live in urban areas spread across the country. Much of its Jewish population was lost during World War II, and now the majority of citizens belong to the Orthodox church.
Belarus is a member of a handful of international organizations including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Monetary Fund.
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