The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordering the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Its topography is largely flat—Belarus’s highest peak is 346 m—and it contains some 11,000 lakes. Just over a quarter of the country is arable.
Belarus has a population of 9.5 million (2015 est.), with over 70 per cent living in urban areas (2 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 2016 census, approximately 2,746 people living in Australia identify as of Belarusian descent and approximately 1,705 were born in Belarus.
Belarus gained independence from the former Soviet Union on 25 August 1991. Belarus 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 appoints the Prime Minister, 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 last Parliamentary elections were held in September 2016. Two opposition candidates won seats. The other 93 independent candidates were considered to be pro-government.
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, again in December 2010 and most recently on 11 October 2015.
The Presidential elections since 2006 and Parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2012 were criticized by international observers. After the 2016 election, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers noted efforts from Belarus to address long-standing issues, but that comprehensive electoral reform was required as part of the broader democratisation process.
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. The EU has now lifted most of its sanctions against Belarus; those that remain include an arms embargo and a travel ban and asset freeze on a small number of individuals. In October 2015, the United States temporarily eased its sanctions on Belarus following the release of several political prisoners.
During the Soviet period, Belarus had a well-developed industrial base as well as a broad agricultural base. Since 1995 – following a brief period of privatisation - the State has played a leading role in the economy. It controls approximately 80 percent of the economy, including agricultural land. Belarus’ major industries (as a percentage of GDP) are services, industry, and agriculture. Belarus is reliant on Russia to meet its energy needs and remains an important part of Russia’s gas corridor to Western Europe. Russia is Belarus’ major partner on financial, energy and security matters.
Belarus’ last year of economic growth was in 2014: 1.4 per cent. The following years have seen no economic growth: 2015: -3.8 per cent; 2016: - 3 per cent and 2017: -0.8 per cent. Other economic challenges include low foreign reserves, a growing trade deficit and high external debt servicing payments.
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.
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.
Belarus opened an Embassy in Australia in February. Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Valentin Rybakov, visited Australia in June 2013 and again in February 2015. Senior Officials Talks have been held, most recently in Minsk in May 2017.
Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Arts and Culture with Belarus during Mr Rybakov’s visit to Australia in February 2015. A Memorandum of Understanding on Bilateral Consultations was signed in 2013.
Bilateral economic and trade relationship
The Australia–Belarus trade relationship is modest. Two-way merchandise trade in 2016 was A$3.1 million, comprising entirely of imports from Belarus: pharmaceuticals, telecommunications equipment and tractors. Total trade in services was A$5 million.
Last updated: December 2017