- Governance: Republic, unitary state
- Capital: Minsk
- Population: 9.6 million
- Religion: Christianity
- Language: Belarusian and Russian (both official)
- Location: Eastern Europe
- Democracy index: Not free, 21/100
Belarus, the former Soviet republic, is located in the middle of Europe. The country is a historic crossroad between East and West, as it experiences both development and stagnation. Belarus lacks independent institutions, activists are pursued and both freedom of speech and organisational freedom are limited. However, visitors experience that the country is not so unlike western democracies. For instance, the youths have wanderlust, use social media and visit “western” cafes, restaurants and modern shops. These are some of the factors that have led several to claim that the country could become democratic “overnight”, if that time were to come.
Yet only 30 per cent of the Belarusian population support EU membership.
Many Belarusians have disliked the long-standing association to their neighbors in the east: Russia. The translation “hviterussere” (white Russians) indicates that the population is some sort of Russians, which corrodes the Belarusian people’s identity. The relationship with Russia is, however, not only language-related. During the past 30 years, as an independent state, the country has yet to escape its Soviet past. Belarus has an authoritative power system, where collective communism still is applicable. In addition, the country still has an active KGB: the former Soviet government committee responsible for security and espionage.
The Belarusian opposition remains weak and divided, despite constant attempts at unionizing before elections. In the aftermath of the 2010 election, more than 700 protesters were arrested. After that some of the leading opposing politicians left the country. The human rights situation also has a number of challenges. Firstly, Belarus remains the only country in Europe that continues to use the death penalty and the freedom of the press is almost non-existent. Secondly, there are few independent media-institutions, and a couple of them were also blocked online, during the winter of 2018.
Read more about how the freedom of speech and press is threatened in Belarus, and what we urge President Lukashenko to do about it here.
NHC and Belarus
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) has followed the situation in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The engagement has involved cooperation with civil society organisations, human rights education and campaigns against the use of death penalty. Our staff has visited Belarus several times, but in recent time we have been refused entry. We have also organized seminars, held lectures and published and promoted a number of publications on Belarus’ situation.
In May 2021, the NHC among other partners asked the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes against humanity in Belarus. Link to the Communication, as well as statements from our Deputy General Secretary and Director of Policy can be found here.
The country was long a part of the Kievan Rus’ until the kingdom’s fall around 1240. Since then, the Belarusian Principality was incorporated into Lithuania, then Poland. Belarus, being located in Central Europe, became a victim of changing political alliances. When Poland was divided into three parts in the 18th century, the Belarusian territories became Russian.
Some turbulent years followed in the period after the fall of the Russian tsar-family, in 1917. Belarus was occupied by German forces, but at the same time they called for a Belarusian congress. Then, Moscow-Bolsheviks took over Belarusian ground and created the Belarusian Soviet Republic. In 1921, a peace agreement was signed in Riga (to end the Polish-Soviet war) and it made Belarus part of the Soviet Union until its fall in 1991. Belarus was declared independent for the first time in many years. Alexander Lukashenko has been president since 1994, and he has gradually tightened his grip on the country.
- 1300-1795: Becomes part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
- 1795-1921: Becomes part of Russia, and then the Soviet Union
- 1991: Belarus declared independent
- 1994: Lukashenko is elected president
- 1997: Union agreement with Russia
- 2006: EU imposes sanctions against Belarus
- 2009: Belarus becomes a member of the Eastern Partnership (an EU formalized cooperation with six countries in the east)
- 2012: EU introduces new sanctions
- 2014: Russia annexes Crimea. The first talks are held in Minsk
- 2016: EU abolishes the sanctions