- 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
The former Soviet republic is located in the middle of Europe. The country is a historic crossroad between East and West: Belarus 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. The youths have wanderlust, use social media and visit “western” cafes, restaurant 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 neighbours 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 not only language-related. During the past 30 years, as an independent state, Belarus has not escaped 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. This led to some of the leading opposing politicians leaving the country. The human rights situation also has a number of challenges. Belarus remains the only country in Europe that continues to use the death penalty and the freedom of the press is almost non-existent. There are few independent media-institutions, and a couple of them were also blocked online, during the winter of 2018
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. The NHC staff has visited Belarus several times, but in recent time we have been refused entry. The NHC has also organized seminars, held lectures and published and promoted a number of publications on Belarus’ situation.
Belarus 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