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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 17,493 14,304 12,200 76
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,590 1,360 1,290 122
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Belarus

Update No: 325 - (26/01/11)

Belarus' oppressive regime may be weakening as the European Union puts on the squeeze and relations with Russia remain shaky.

On 20 December, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term in office with nearly 80 per cent of the vote. The night before, police had dispersed demonstrators who massed outside the main government office to denounce alleged vote-rigging.

The protesters broke windows and smashed glass doors in the government building, which also houses the election commission, but hundreds of police and Interior Ministry troops arrived in trucks, causing most of the demonstrators to flee. Some tried to hide in the courtyards of nearby apartment buildings, but many were bludgeoned by troops. Hundreds of people, including most of the challengers in the poll, were arrested by security services, and several of them were beaten. Four of the seven presidential challengers who were arrested are still in custody.

In response to the crackdown, the European Parliament met on January 12 and vowed to impose a travel ban against the Belarusian government at the end of the month unless those detained during the protests are released and the charges against them dropped.

After meeting Belarusian opposition figures, President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, said “All European institutions should rethink their relations with Belarus.” EU diplomats are already preparing to stop Lukashenko – and up to 100 officials involved in the electoral fraud and post-election crackdown – from visiting other EU member states. They have also suggested freezing their assets and suspending Belarus from the EU's Eastern Partnership.

President Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and he's widely thought of as Europe's last dictator. The former Soviet country hasn't progressed much since it became independent in 1991 and there are still hardly any private companies registered there. The only reason that Belarus has not collapsed is because Russia supplies it with cheap, subsidised gas.

When Lukashenko squashed the opposition before Christmas, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared that whatever happened in Belarus was not Moscow's concern. That attitude, which Russia has maintained for decades, has allowed the Belarusian President to maintain his iron grip. A large portion of Russia's gas supplies to Europe go though Belarus and as long as the two countries remain on roughly friendly terms, Western Europe is at their mercy.

That might change. When Georgia and Ukraine had their colour revolutions in 2003-2004, they turned away from Russia and looked to the West. At that time, Moscow could still count on Belarus to remain faithful, but in 2007, the two countries fell out over the amount of tax that the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, wanted to charge. Relations soured further last summer when disputes over energy pricing and customs union terms prompted speculation that Moscow might switch support from Lukashenko to another leadership candidate.

That didn't happen, and Russia patched things up with Lukashenko at the last minute – inviting him to sign a preferential energy deal and to join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan economic union. But Russia's continued backing is not guaranteed.

Lukashenko is vulnerable. Before December's election, his only sway with voters was his ability to maintain stability, order, and jobs for the people, but he is beginning to lose his grip. Belarus' national debt is 52 per cent of GDP and more spats with Russia over gas could ruin the economy. The EU would not be prepared to bail the country out while Lukashenko is in power, and a serious economic crisis could cause social unrest of a large enough magnitude to spark a revolution, or at least make sure that Lukashenko's current term is his last.

If his regime falls, Russia will have to negotiate its terms on energy pricing with a new president, which could be bad news for European gas supplies. But whatever happens, Belarus' position as a buffer between Moscow and the EU means that the pressure building up from both sides won't abate anytime soon.

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