Diplomatic rancor flared anew in winter 2012 between Belarus and the European Union. On Feb. 28, the E.U. imposed new sanctions, including a travel ban and asset freeze for 21 Belarussian officials “responsible for the repression of civil society and the democratic opposition,” a statement from the union said. They were imposed on top of the sanctions that followed the December 2010 presidential election.
Official figures released in July 2007 estimate the population of the country at that time as 9,724,723. The earlier census taken in February 1999 showed the figure to be 10,045,237 at that date, with the subsequent count in December 2005 showing 9,750,500. All of this means that the negative growth rate is currently -0.06%. News that the population is continuing to fall will come as no surprise to those who know the country, for the leading ambition of many Belarusians, particularly the young, is to find a 'better life' elsewhere, usually in the West.
Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, president since 1994, has been called Europe’s last dictator. In December 2010, he was re-elected with what government officials said was about 80 percent of the vote. That month, thousands of protesters filled a large square in the center of Minsk, incensed over Mr. Lukashenko’s claim of a sweeping victory in elections that independent observers deemed a farce.
As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus had a relatively well-developed industrial base; it retained this industrial base - which is now outdated, energy inefficient, and dependent on subsidized Russian energy and preferential access to Russian markets - following the breakup of the USSR. The country also has a broad agricultural base which is inefficient and dependent on government subsidies.
For Belarus, the three years that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union may best be described in the worlds of Edward Gibbon as "an amazing period of tranquil anarchy." The tranquility part corresponded to the Belarusian political scene where all things Soviet, with the singular exception of the Communist Party, were carefully preserved in the center of the country's political firmament, while new political parties, small and amateurish, clustered uncomfortably on the margins. Anarchy, meanwhile, reigned in the country's economy as the centrifugal processes in the crumbling Soviet economic system were met by utterly ineffectual attempts to preserve the Soviet-style political economy in Belarus.
After seven decades as a constituent republic of the USSR, Belarus attained its independence in 1991. It has retained closer political and economic ties to Russia than any of the other former Soviet republics. Belarus and Russia signed a treaty on a two-state union on 8 December 1999 envisioning greater political and economic integration.
Representatives of Vilno and Minsk nationalist groups met in Minsk on March 25, 1918 and proclaimed the first Belarusian state: the Belarusian People's Republic (BPR). The latter possessed all the attributes of an independent state but one: an armed force sufficient to secure the state's independence. The BPR administration was formed barely a month after the Germans entered Minsk. It fled the city on December 16, 1918, a full week before the German retreat.
Five major rivers run through the territory of Belarus, the Nieman, the Dnieper, the Berezhina, the Sozh and the Pripyat, the last of which flows adjacent to the site of the former nuclear complex at Chernobyl in Ukraine, scene of the world's worst commercial nuclear catastrophe in April 1986. Approximately one-fifth of the territory of Belarus, mostly in the southeast, continues to be affected.
The country has a total area of 80,155 square miles (207,600 square km), which makes it slightly smaller than Kansas in the United States. The population density is fairly low with only about 127 persons per square mile (47 persons per square km).
Today, Belarus is a presidential republic governed by the president and a National Assembly. The National Assembly is a two-chamber parliament made up of the 110-member House of Representatives (the lower house) and a 64-member Council of the Republic (the upper house). The House of Representatives is elected by popular vote every four years.