Belarus country brief

Overview

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. According to the 2011 census, approximately 1,700 people living in Australia identify as of Belarusian descent and approximately 1,600 were born in Belarus.

Political overview

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.  Belarus’ next Presidential election is due to be held in late 2015.

The Presidential elections in 2006 and 2010 and Parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2012 were criticised by international observers. For example, following the 2010 Presidential election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said “Belarus has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections”. Following the 2012 Parliamentary elections, the OSCE said “elections were not administered in an impartial manner”.  

The EU and US placed targeted sanctions on Belarus following the 2006 Presidential election. These sanctions were strengthened following the 2010 election and subsequent arrest of protesters and opposition candidates.  There are also international sanctions in place on Belarus due to its human rights record.  In October 2014, the EU extended human rights sanctions for another year. The latest reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus state that there has been “no sign of improvement in the human rights situation in Belarus.” Belarus’s Universal Periodic Review is scheduled for May 2015.

Economic overview

Belarus had been one of the more prosperous parts of the Soviet Union in the post-war years. However, 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 0.9 per cent in 2013 and 2014 and it is predicted to decline to negative 2.3 per cent in 2015. 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’s 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).  The CES aimed to remove all barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, and was based on the rules of the WTO.  In May 2014, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) treaty, which came 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.

Bilateral relationship

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 opened an Embassy in Australia in February 2015 and is represented by Ambassador Viktar Shykh. Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Valentin Rybakov, visited Australia in June 2013 and again in February 2015. Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Arts and Culture with Belarus during Mr Rybakov’s visit in February 2015.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

The Australia–Belarus trade relationship is modest. Two-way merchandise trade in 2013-14 was A$5.1 million, dominated by A$4.6 million in Australian imports from Belarus (predominantly fertilisers, medical instruments, and rubber tyres and treads).

Last updated: April 2015

Last Updated: 16 July 2014