Country profile: Belarus

Alexey Sakhnin considers the country that made international headlines for massive anti-government protests, and brutal state crackdown, in 2020 and from which Russia launched its recent invasion of Ukraine.

Two women and a man smile outside a green and blue building. The man carries chopped wood.
Villagers in Logoisky region prepare firewod for winter. Credit: ZUMA / ALAMY

Along the Polish-Belarusian border grows Europe’s largest primeval forest: the Belovezh Pushcha, reputedly haunted by a six-armed spirit. Many armies have perished in its swamps, and it was at a summit here in 1991 the USSR passed into history.

For centuries, the people of Belarus were neglected and oppressed by ruling feudal dynasties of Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Exiting World War One, the Bolsheviks handed Belarus to the Germans, sparking an early nationalist movement.

After Germany’s defeat, ‘Byelorussia’ became a co-founder of the USSR. Even nationalists acknowledged the early success of the Soviet system in the new republic. But later they allied themselves with Hitler’s Germany, hoping to achieve independence. Under Nazi occupation (1941-44) Belarus’s population fell by a quarter, and 800,000 Jews – 90 per cent of the total Jewish population – were killed.

After the war, Belarus again became a key industrial centre of the USSR, with tractors and motorcycles its most recognizable exports. Of all the Soviet republics, Belarus suffered most from the nuclear fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Attempts to conceal the disaster’s impact radicalized part of the Belarusian intelligentsia, leading to a flourishing of opposition: including anti-Soviet nationalism.

After the demise of the USSR, power was contested between post-Soviet and pro-Western forces, and independence was followed by factory closures, falling standards of living and hyperinflation. In the 1994 presidential elections, both sides of the new regime and resurgent nationalists were defeated by former state-farm director Alexander Lukashenko. He promised alignment with Russia, social stability and a fight against corruption.

Map showing the location of Belarus

Under Lukashenko, Belarus returned to its former Soviet iconography. While strengthening his own power, Lukashenko gained popular support by implementing price controls and halting privatization. By the late 1990s Lukashenko was already being called ‘Europe’s last dictator’, but his record for economic stability had won him popularity in both Belarus and Russia. Nonetheless, Belarus became more integrated into the global market and suffered in the world financial crisis of 2008.

In the 2010s, the government implemented two devaluations of the national currency. Incomes fell while privatization and liberalization resumed. Lukashenko’s state capitalism was becoming less social and more neoliberal, and his popularity was melting.

Observers have condemned most recent elections in Belarus, but when Lukashenko claimed an 80 per cent win in 2020, mass protests broke out, with an estimated 10 per cent of Belarusians taking part. The mainly pro-Western opposition won extensive support from Belarus’s new middle class, but much of the working class remained sceptical of its support for large-scale privatization. This – along with fear of repression – perhaps explains why the protests did not grow even larger than they did, in spite of widespread feeling that the election was a sham.

Thousands were imprisoned during the initial crackdown. By Lukashenko’s own admission, labour unrest in key state-owned industries played a role in getting the authorities to abandon some of their most brutal tactics. The EU imposed sanctions and Lukashenko retaliated by inviting refugees from the Middle East to travel via Belarus to Poland, sparking a migration crisis on Fortress Europe’s eastern frontier.

Lukashenko, meanwhile, received substantial support from Moscow in quashing the demonstrations. Belarus’s escalating involvement in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underlined how now, more than ever, Lukashenko is a hostage of the Kremlin.

Protesters wave the tricolour flag
Protesters wave the tricolour flag used by the nationalist government in 1918 and from 1990-95 during an August 2020 demonstration in Minsk. Credit: ANDREI BORTNIKAU/ALAMY

LEADER: President Alexander Lukashenko

ECONOMY: GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) $19,148 (GDP per capita 6,222) (Russia PPP: $26,456; UK PPP: $45,170)

Monetary unit: Belarusian ruble (1 BYN = $ 0.39).

Main exports: re-exporting Russian oil and petrochemicals to the EU. Tractors, farming machinery, agricultural equipment and produce to Russia and countries of the Eurasian Customs Union. Belarus has a negative balance of payments.

POPULATION: 9.45 million, slowly shrinking due to emigration and low birth rate. Population density 45.3 per sq km. (Ukraine 76; UK 281)

HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 2.9 per 1,000 live births (Russia 5.4; UK 4.2). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 2 (Russia: 17; UK 7). 1.1 million citizens live in Chernobyl contamination zone.

ENVIRONMENT: Many forests and swamplands, with moderate continental climate. Soil contamination and population exposure is gradually decreasing in Chernobyl fallout zone. Forest fires are increasingly frequent due to climate change, but Belarus is less affected than Russia and Ukraine due to a more effective forest management system.

CULTURE: Belarus was home to people of 130 ethnicities. Among them, the most well-represented are Belarusians (7.9 million or 84.9%), Russians (706,992 or 7.5%), Poles (287, 693 or 3.1%) and Ukrainians (159, 656 or 1.7%).

LANGUAGE: Russian (official, spoken by 80% of population). Belarusian (official, spoken by 23% of the population but only 10% day-to-day). A preference for Belarusian is usually linked to nationalist and/or pro-Western positions. Small Polish and Ukrainian-speaking minorities.

RELIGION: A rather secular state, with 48.3% identifying as Russian Orthodox, 7.1% Catholic (mainly the Polish minority and some in western regions), 41.1% no religion. Prior to the Holocaust, Belarus had a large Jewish population.

Statue of Francis Skaryna stands in front of tall city buildings
Monument to painter and educator Francis Skaryma in Minsk. Credit: ALENA ZHAROVA/SHUTTERSTOCK

INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★★★✩✩

Income inequality is among the lowest in Europe, with the top 10% receiving income 6 times higher than the incomes of the bottom 10%. In Russia this figure is 15.4. But inequality has been growing in recent years.

LITERACY ★★★★

Belarus has a high literacy rate of 99.7%, thanks to a strong education system and a highly successful IT cluster. Around 60% of university students are women. But the number of university students has shrunk from 100,000 to 59,000.

LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★✩✩

Before the pandemic, life expectancy in Belarus had reached 74.5 years: higher than Russia and Ukraine, but worse than most of Europe. The government obscured Covid-19 death rates, but it is likely that the epidemic has lowered life expectancy.

POSITION OF WOMEN ★★★✩✩

Social programs such as three years of paid maternity leave has pushed Belarus high in gender equality rankings. Women are more educated and live almost 10 years longer than men, but were worse affected by Covid-19’s economic impact.

FREEDOM ★✩✩✩✩

The backlash against the 2020 protests continues through propaganda, censorship and repressions, with 5,000 prosecutions. Last country in Europe to still use the death penalty.

SEXUAL MINORITIES ★★✩✩✩

Belarus, like Russia, has high levels of homophobia. There is no specific anti-discrimination legislation, and marriage is defined as a ‘union between a man and a woman’. But there are no other anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, and unlike Russia the government does not use homophobia in its propaganda.

POLITICS ★✩✩✩✩

The legislature is made up of parties and independents loyal to Lukashenko. Elections are regularly condemned over alleged irregularities. A recent referendum on constitutional amendments – again branded a sham – granted more authority to the All-Belarusian National Assembly: a committee of nomenklatura which could act as a check on a future president.