The present borders of Belarus were established during the turmoil of World War II. The former Soviet republic was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, when it lost 2.3 million people, including most of its large Jewish population. There are about 400,000 ethnic Poles living in the west of the country.
The country became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than a decade later, the sense of national identity is weak, its international isolation is intensifying and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue. It is bordered by Poland, Lithuania, Russia and the Ukraine, and it covers some 207,600 sq km. The capital of Belarus is Minsk which has a population of 2 million.
In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away. Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia to meet its own energy needs and a considerable proportion of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe pass through it.
- Population: 9.5 million (UN, 2012)
- Capital: Minsk
- Area: 207,595 sq km (80,153 sq miles)
- Major language: Russian, Belarusian (both official)
- Major religion: Christianity
- Life expectancy: 65 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Belarusian rouble = 100 kopeks
- Main exports: Machinery, chemical and petroleum products
- GNI per capita: US $5,380 (World Bank, 2011)
- Internet domain: .by
International dialling code: +375
Minsk itself looks like any other proud capital, but under the surface you can see that it cannot support its previous grandeur. Out in the country the situation is even worse, many villages do not have running water and depend upon wells for their water, and even some of these are frozen during the long, hard, winter months.
In the three years following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, 100,000 people, many simple farmers, where re-housed from the radiation hot spots, 55,000 of whom up in high rise apartments, specially built for them in the capital. It was essential to move people away from these contaminated areas, but no one foresaw the social implication of doing so. No land, no work - just despair, alcoholism and high divorce rates.