The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordering the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It is a largely flat country—Belarus’s highest peak is 346 m—and contains some 11,000 lakes. Just over a quarter of the country is arable. Agriculture and manufacturing are Belarus’s strongest economic sectors.
Belarus has a population of 9.2 million (2013 est.), of whom over 70 per cent live in urban areas (1.9 million live in the capital, Minsk). Since a referendum in 1995, the country has had two official languages: Belarusian and Russian. Belarus celebrates its National Day on 3 July.
Belarus gained independence from the former Soviet Union on 25 August 1991. It is a presidential republic. A new constitution was adopted in 1994. It has twice been amended by referendum—first in 1996, giving the President increased powers and establishing a bicameral parliamentary system; and again in 2004 to allow the President to run for more than two terms.
The Parliament consists of an upper house, or the Council of the Republic, with 64 members, and a lower chamber, or House of Representatives, with 110 members. The President (Aleksandr Lukashenko) appoints the Prime Minister (Mikhail Myasnikovich), the Deputy Prime Minister and eight members of the Council of the Republic. All members of the House of Representatives are elected by popular vote. The next Parliamentary elections are due to be held in September 2016.
The President is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. President Lukashenko was first elected in July 1994, and re-elected in September 2001. After the 2004 change to the Constitution, allowing a president to run for more than two terms, President Lukashenko was re-elected in March 2006 and again in December 2010.
President Lukashenko has been the target of sharp international criticism. Particular areas of concern include control of the bureaucracy and the media, the use of state security apparatus and the country’s poor human rights record. The Presidential elections in 2006 and 2010 and Parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2012 were also criticised by international observers, including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for falling significantly short of international standards.
The EU and US placed targeted sanctions on Belarus following the 2006 Presidential election, which were strengthened following the 2010 election and subsequent arrest of protesters and opposition candidates. Subsequently, however, the EU suspended its travel ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei in June 2013 to facilitate diplomatic contact with Belarus.
President Lukashenko has directed effort into maintaining an amicable relationship with Russia, Belarus’s largest economic partner, despite some tensions over Russia’s hard line on energy trade, and regional dominance. Belarus is also moving toward economic integration with Russia and Kazakhstan (see below).
Belarus had been one of the more prosperous parts of the Soviet Union in the post-war years, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has opposed the privatisation of state enterprises, and foreign investors have largely stayed away.
Belarus has seen little structural reform in its economy since 1995 when President Lukashenko embarked on a program of ‘market socialism.’ Under this program the Presidential administration re-imposed state control over the large Soviet-era industrial enterprises, and over the management of private enterprise. Around three-quarters of the economy is under government control. Over 80 per cent of agricultural land is state-owned and most agricultural land is communally farmed. Collective and state farms are heavily subsidised.
Belarus has received several loans from the IMF and Russia since the global financial crisis. According to the IMF, real GDP growth was 2.1 per cent in 2013. In 2012 it was estimated at 1.5 per cent.
Belarus is dependent on Russia to meet its energy needs and remains an important part of Russia’s gas corridor to Western Europe. Looking to the future, Belarus’ economy faces challenges including high external debt servicing payments, a growing trade deficit, stagnant economic growth, and low foreign reserves.
The Russia–Belarus–Kazakhstan Customs Union began operation in January 2010. This was followed in January 2012 by the establishment of the Russia–Belarus–Kazakhstan Common Economic Space (CES). In theory, the CES removes all barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, and is based on the rules of the WTO. In May 2014, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) treaty, which will come into effect on 1 January 2015. The focus of the EEU is on creating a common market for goods, services, capital and labour, similar in some aspects to the European Union.
Australia recognised the Republic of Belarus following its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Australia’s Ambassador in Moscow is accredited to Belarus and in May 2014 presented his credentials to President Lukashenko in Minsk. Belarus’s Ambassador in Jakarta is accredited to Australia. Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Valentin Rybakov, visited Australia in June 2013.
Bilateral economic and trade relationship
The Australia–Belarus trade relationship is modest. Two-way merchandise trade in 2013 was A$5.6 million, dominated by A$5.2 million in Australian imports from Belarus (predominantly fertilisers, medical instruments, and rubber tyres and treads).