Developments in Belarus
In 2001, it looked like Belarus would have a good opportunity to make the transition to market economy at independence. Instead, the lack of democratic development led to further isolation from the rest of Europe.
Belarus became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Aleksander Lukashenko won the first presidential elections in 1994. He quickly strengthened his own power while silencing the opposition through repressive measures. Today, Lukashenko fully controls Belarus. The parliament yields no real power and lacks representation from the opposition. The lack of democracy is so palpable that Belarus is the only country in Europe that has not been granted membership of the Council of Europe.
Through a referendum in 2004 Lukashenko made sure that he could remain president in the future as the limitation of two presidential terms were abolished.
Today, the relation with the western countries is complex; it has been characterized by restrictions followed by periodic overtures. The increased repression following the presidential election in 2010 has increased the isolation of Belarus. Both the EU and the US has introduced sanctions against Belarus.
In the summer of 2012, a diplomatic conflict between Belarus and Sweden erupted, when a Swedish advertising agency dropped teddy bears with flyers in support of the opposition over Belarusian territory. The regime expelled the Swedish ambassador who was accused of having to close relations with the Belarusian opposition.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Belarus constitution, but in practice Belarus ranks among the bottom layer countries in terms of press freedom in the world. Voices critical to the regime are persecuted and it is expressly forbidden to portrait Belarus in a bad light. In Belarus, journalists are harassed, threatened and imprisoned.
Violations of human rights are numerous. The rights to free gatherings and the formation of free and independent associations are severely limited and the political opposition systematically thwarted. Ahead of Belarus hosted the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2014 was arrested several young activists. However, the former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2011 was released in August 2015.
The relationship with Russia
The regime is heavily dependent on Russia, although the relationship has been turbulent. In connection with Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 the Belarusian regime expressed it’s support for Ukraine's right to self-determination. On the other hand, Belarus voted against a UN resolution in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Belarus is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which entered into force in January 2015. The other members are Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. In addition to the Free Trade Union covers several other collaborations.
Business and Economy
Belarus is relatively poor in natural resources. For its energy supply, the country is dependent on the import of natural gas from Russia. In Belarus there are fertile soils and almost half of the land is cultivated. The major part of agriculture in Belarus is still carried out in by state-owned large farms.
In 2014, Belarus was hit by the economic crisis that effected Russia due to Western sanctions and falling oil prices. In January 2015, the Belarusian Ruble was devaluated twice in the period of just a few days.
The state is the dominant employer in Belarus, where the private sector is relatively undeveloped. In theory, the Belarus authorities ensures employment for everyone, but the recent financial difficulties have made increased unemployment and led to reduced social benefits. The high inflation has also eroded the value of pensions and other benefits.
The number of people (according to official figures) living in poverty has fallen, from about one third at the turn of the century to one out of twenty in 2012. Income distribution is relatively even. In Belarus there are not the large contrasts between rich and poor that are so evident in Russia.